Trigger warning: Holocaust appropriation
Last week, if you recall, we left off with the author interviewing Dr. B about the reliability of the gospels. We just established that they were totes written by who they are claimed to be, and that now we are discussing a little bit about the gospel of John is different from the other 3 gospels.
After some more discussion about Jesus’ claims to divinity in the 3 synoptic gospels, talk again turns to GJohn.
“Doesn’t the fact that John was writing with more of a theological bent mean that his historical material may have been tainted and therefore less reliable?”
Dr. B starts talking about how GJohn is not more theological than the other 3 gospels. The author and I both recognize this as not really answering the question, so the author presses the point.
“Ok, but don’t those theological motivations cast doubt on their ability and willingness to report what actually happened? Isn’t it likely that their theological agenda would prompt them to color and twist the history they recorded?”
Finally, a good question!
Dr. B admits that the possibility exists. However, his response is that just because it could happen doesn’t mean it did happen. Which…. I guess? I mean, sure, maybe the actual writer of GJohn wasn’t twisting things, either on purpose or by accident. That doesn’t mean his gospel didn’t get some slight editing at some point. A word or two here and there across the centuries…. it sounds like a little thing, but huge fights can break out over the wording in just one bible verse. I’m not kidding.
I smiled. “I suppose you could say that makes everything suspect,” I suggested.
“Yes, at one level it does,” Dr. B replied. “But if we can reconstruct reasonably accurate history from all kinds of other ancient sources, we ought to be able to do that from the gospels, even though they too are ideological.”
But how do you find out if the gospels are historically reliable? Are there any sources outside the biblical cannon that corroborate the things said in the 4 Biblical gospels? What other ancient sources confirm these?
The author doesn’t ask these questions, and I am once again disappointed by his lack of asking any questions that I would.
If Dr. B had stopped talking here, I could maybe concede the point. I could at least move on without getting angry at him. But he goes on talking.
Dr. B thought for a moment…finally he said, “Here’s a modern parallel, from the experience of the Jewish community, that might clarify what I mean.
Some people, usually for anti Semitic purposes, deny or downplay the horrors of the holocaust. But it has been the Jewish scholars who’ve created museums, written books, preserved artifacts, and documented eyewitness testimony concerning the Holocaust.
I’m sure this is somewhat true-I’m sure a lot of Jews have created museums and contributing testimony-I’m really glad that they are doing that. I have no problem with Holocaust history coming from the Jews, because it’s their story to tell and we desperately need their perspective.
However, I wonder if it is true that the majority of museums, books, and other artifacts are from Jews. I highly doubt that Jews are the only ones studying the Holocaust. I am not going to look up every single Holocaust museum and see who owns it and what their religion is. That would be tedious, also, I really don’t care. I just wonder how true this claim of Dr. B’s is.
Now, they [the Jews] have an ideological purpose–namely, to ensure that such an atrocity never occurs again–but they have also been the most faithful and objective in their reporting of historical truth.
Christianity was likewise based on certain historical claims that God uniquely entered into space and time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so the very ideology that Christians were trying to promote required as careful historical work as possible.
He let his analogy sink in. Turning to face me more directly, he asked, “Do you see my point?”
I nodded to indicate that I did.
I am hugely uncomfortable with this. I don’t like Holocaust appropriation, and I certainly don’t like the way it is being used here. Dr. B is essentially saying, “if you think the gospel writers were biased, then you also have to admit that the Jews might be a little bit biased, too.”
And I am not ok with that.
Set that aside. Let’s see exactly how well this analogy works. See, the thing about the Holocaust is that, for now, there are still people alive who remember it. Not only do we have actual eyewitnesses, we have other evidence outside the eyewitness testimony that corroborates that. I could book a trip and go tour Auschwitz(sp). At one point, the crematoriums probably still existed, and people saw them. . There is lots of evidence that the Holocaust happened, and that it was horrific. Even if the Jews weren’t telling their story, we would still know about the Holocaust (though I will concede that we may not know the extent of the horrors thereof.)
Can we say the same thing about the Bible? That’s debatable, and I’d be interested in hearing from both sides. But the author isn’t doing that. He’s only presenting one side.
There’s a section break, the title of the next section is:
HOT NEWS FROM HISTORY
Having established that the gospels were totally written by eyewitnesses, the author turns his attention to when the gospels were written. At some point, I should seriously pick a less biased book to review, because this would be very interesting if both sides were being presented. But this book is an attempt to convert people, so we only get one side.
The author asks Dr. B if he thinks the gospels were reliably preserved. Since stories were mostly handed down by oral tradition, he argues, things could have changed a little in the time it took the gospel writers to actually write this shit down.
That’s a very valid argument.
The author quotes from a book in which the author states that GMark wasn’t written until the year 70AD. If you remember from Bible class, Jesus died circa AD30. This is a time gap of approximately 40 years, which seems rather significant.
The author is talking:
“Some scholars say the gospels were written so far after the events that legend developed and distorted what was finally written down, turning Jesus from merely a wise teacher into a mythological Son of God. Is that a reasonable hypothesis, or is there good evidence that the gospels were recorded earlier than that, before legend could corrupt what was ultimately recorded?”
Oh good, I think. They’re going to go into a lot of detail about why exactly GMark is thought to have been written in AD70, then refute it.
What actually happens is a let down.
Dr. B says there is evidence that the gospels were written much earlier, but even if they were not, he still thinks the argument isn’t valid.
“The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, and John in the 90s. But listen: That’s still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around.”
People do live that long, but I wonder if they were living that long in AD30. Weren’t lifespans drastically shorter back then? You probably would not have as many people living into their 60s in the ancient world as we do now.
Set that aside, it’s irrelevant. What I want to focus on is “hostile eyewitnesses” that Dr. B is talking about. I have no doubt there were some such people…but would they have served as much of a corrective against false teachings? Well, in today’s world, maybe. In today’s world they could write books, start blogs, talk about it on social media.
But in Jesus’ time period? What even was the literacy rate at that time? How many of these hostile eyewitnesses could even read? Sure, you’d get a lot of people saying “bullshit, I was there,” but ultimately history remembers that which is written down. So unless somebody sat down and wrote about Mark being a false gospel, no, I don’t believe that these hostile eyewitnesses would have served as “a corrective.” At least, not in the long run.
That being said, it is possible that some of these “hostile witnesses” did write books to correct the lies in the canonical gospels. However, Dr. B dismisses these as “fanciful apocryphal gospels,” and so in his mind, they don’t count.
Dr. B is still talking. He says that the dates for the gospels aren’t really that late, and then compares the gospels to the books about Alexander the Great.
“The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 4 hundred thousand years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy. Yes, legendary material about Alexander did develop over time, but it was only in the centuries after these 2 writers.
In other words, the first 500 years kept Alexander’s story pretty much intact. Legendary material began to emerge over the next 500 years. So whether the gospels were written 60 years or 30 years after the life of Jesus, the amount of time is negligible by comparison. It’s almost a non issue.
This didn’t sound right to me, so I looked it up. It turns out to be a half truth. Yes, the earliest books we have about Alexander the Great are written by Arrian and Plutarch. However, what the author of this book is not telling us is that Arrian and Plutarch were quoting from earlier books that had been written during Alexander’s lifetime. Unfortunately, we do not have copies of these earlier biographies of Alexander. I think we have fragments, but not the whole books. For further reading, see this link. And this one.
I’ve also been reading that some historians do doubt that Arrian and Plutarch are all that reliable, though I don’t know how true that is.
So, Dr. B and the author of this book are giving us a half truth, at best.
Now, I don’t want to outright call Strobel a Lying McLiarpants, but at the very least this is sloppy journalism. And if this is the type of journalism I can come to expect, why should I read the rest of your book?
The author is still asking about the dates the gospels were written. Dr. B thinks the gospels were written much earlier than most scholars believe.
We can support that by looking at the book of Acts, which was written by Luke. Acts ends apparently unfinished-Paul is a central figure of the book, and he’s under house arrest in Rome. With that the book abruptly halts. What happens to Paul? We don’t find out from Acts, presumably because the book was written before Paul was put to death.”
Dr. B was getting more wound up as he went. “That means Acts cannot be dated any later than AD 62. Having established that, we can then move backward from there. Since Acts is the second of a 2 part work, we know the first part–the gospel of Luke–must have been written earlier than that. And since Luke incorporates part of the gospel of Mark, that means Mark is even earlier.”
Dr. Be goes on to say that he believes Mark was written in AD60, with a 30 year gap between the events and the time they were written down.
He sat back in his chair with an air of triumph. “Historically speaking, especially compared with Alexander the Great,” he said, “that’s like a newsflash!”
Ummmm from what I have been reading, Alexander the Great had someone writing about his exploits as he was doing them. It really is too bad we only have fragments of these early writings about him.
So no, Dr. B, that’s not a newsflash. Also, it does not take 500 years for legends to spring up around a person. Remember George Washington and the cherry tree? Yeah, that never happened. George Washington is only 280 years dead, so clearly it takes less time than 500 years for false hoods and legends to spring up. (In fact, I read an article online suggesting that this myth was created a mere 7 years after GW’s death, though I can’t verify that.)
Next the author asks Dr. B about when people began to believe certain things about Jesus, for example, in what year did people start to believe he was resurrected?
To summarize, Dr. B reads 1 Corinthians 15, and says that oh yeah, early Christians totally believed Jesus was sent to die for our sins, that he was the son of God, that he was resurrected.
I have read this argument 3 times and I still don’t get it.
“Here’s the point….if the crucifixion was as early as AD30, Paul’s conversion was about 32. Immediately Paul was ushered into Damascus, where he met with a Christian named Ananias and some other disciples. His first meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem would have been AD35. At some point along there, Paul was given his creed, which had already been formulated and was being used in the early church.
Now, here you have the key facts about Jesus’ death for our sins, plus a detailed list of those to whom he appeared in resurrected form–all dating back to within 2-5 years of the events themselves!
Wait, huh? I have to say, the more I read this, the more I remain utterly baffled. Is it just me, or is Dr. B stretching a little?
Dr. B goes on
“That’s not later mythology from 40 or more years down the road…a good case can be made for saying that Christian belief in the Resurrection, though not yet written down, can be dated to within 2 years of that very event. This is enormously significant, he said, his voice rising a bit in emphasis. “Now you’re not comparing 30 to 60 years with the 500 years that’s generally acceptable for other data–you’re talking about 2!”
Um, what? No, 500 years is not what is generally acceptable for other data. If I want to write about an event that happened 500 years ago, I need to go find primary sources.
The author accepts all this as proof that the early Christians believed in the resurrection. This is important because some say that belief in the resurrection developed over time, and was not something the early Christians believed in at all. Apparently that was one of the author’s huge stumbling blocks to accepting Christianity: he was sure that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus was a result of the legends and myths that would have circulated over time. His mind is BLOWN.
My mind is not. It is very possible that the early Christians did believe that Jesus was resurrected. Does that make this belief true? Well, no. Just because a bunch of people believed it a long time ago doesn’t make it true.
The author of the book ends the chapter here, thinking it’s a good place to pause.
Now, I have done some reading, and one of the articles I read claimed that Dr. B claims to have been misquoted all over the place in this book. Exactly how he was misquoted wasn’t stated, and I do not know how true the claim is. Take it with a grain of salt. (Or a whole shaker.) Since I can not know the veracity of the claim, I am merely going to note it and move on. (You may have noticed I have been a little bit kinder when writing these blog posts, just in case the claim is true.)
The author has posted discussion questions at the end of each chapter. I’m going to post the questions here, and then my responses will be in a separate blog post, which will get posted later.
That’s it for this post. I’ll try to get chapter 2 (or part of it, at least) up soon.
(Questions for Reflection or Group Study)
- How have your opinions been influenced by someone’s eyewitness account of an event? What are some factors you routinely use to evaluate whether someone’s story is honest and accurate? How do you think the gospels would stand up to that kind of scrutiny?
- Do you believe that the gospels can have a theological agenda while at the same time being trustworthy in what they report? Why or why not? Do you find Blomberg’s Holocaust analogy helpful in thinking through this issue?
- How and why does Blomberg’s description of the early information about Jesus affect your opinion about the reliability of the gospels?