Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?
That is the question the author is attempting to answer here in this book. This would be a fascinating chapter if the author was going to go over the evidence, giving equal weight to both sides. It would also be interesting to bring up the non canonical gospels, discussing the reliability and historicity of each. Instead, the author will spend this chapter defending the canonical synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
One reason, dear C, that I never finished this book is because I felt the author wasn’t asking relevant questions. The question of whether or not the gospels are reliable is, to me, like asking if the same author who wrote the Harry Potter books is also responsible for the hot mess that is “Cursed Child.” An interesting way to spend an afternoon, but not particularly profitable or relevant.
The fact that the author feels that the reliability of the gospels is so important says to me that this book is not written with people like me in mind. Even as a Christian, I found the information in this chapter one sided, biased, and incredibly disappointing. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I was a questioning Christian when I read it, and many people wouldn’t consider such a person to be a “true Christian.”
We start off with the author talking about how important eye witness testimony is, and how it can be enough to convict someone in a court of law.
Yes, eyewitness testimony can be compelling and convincing. When a witness has had ample opportunity to observe a crime, when there’s no bias or ulterior motives, when the witness is truthful and fair, the climactic act of pointing out a defendant in a courtroom can be enough to doom that person to prison or worse.
Mr. Strobel has been watching too many episodes of Law and Order. Here’s the thing: any judge with half a brain (and I will admit that some judges are better than others) knows two things:
- Everyone has bias and ulterior motives, whether they’re conscious or not
- Human memory is extremely faulty, easy to tamper with, and incredibly easy to manipulate.
That’s…..why we have trials in the first place.
If I still had my textbook, I’d do a really long and thorough blog post on exactly how unreliable human memory is. It’s enough to make you go insane wondering just how many of your own memories are reliable and correct. But I have a lot of material to cover in this chapter, and it would be best to move on, for now.
What I do want you to note is that a person doesn’t have to be lying in order to be presenting false testimony.
The first person the author is going to interview is a man I’m calling Dr. B. The next few paragraphs go over Dr. B’s credibility. In order:
- He’s very smart. He even looks like a stereotypical smart person.
- High school valedictorian
- national merit scholar
- Magna Cum Laude(sp) graduate from “a prestigious seminary” (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.)
- Widely considered to be one of the country’s foremost authorities on the gospels
- Got a doctorate in New Testament from Aberdeen University
- Served as a senior research fellow at Tyndale House
- part of an elite group of international scholars that produced a series of acclaimed works on Jesus.
- He’s been a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, which the author tells us is “highly respected.”
- He wrote 2 books about Jesus and his life
- Edited some other books about the gospels
- Taught mathematics at some point
But I wanted someone who was more than just intelligent and educated. I was searching for an expert who wouldn’t gloss over nuances or blithely dismiss challenges to the records of Christianity. I wanted someone with integrity, someone who has grappled with the most potent critiques of the faith and who speaks authoritatively but without the kind of sweeping statements that conceal rather than deal with critical issues.
Fair enough, I guess? I mean, I can understand and agree with some of this, but why does it matter if Dr. B has struggled with the same kinds of things you have?
Admittedly, I had a few doubts, especially when my research yielded one profoundly disturbing fact that he would probably have preferred to remain hidden: Dr. B still holds out hope that the Chicago Cubs will win the world series in his lifetime.
Frankly, that was enough to make me a bit suspicious of his discernment.
Is Dr. B still alive? He is? Well Guess what Strobel?
After establishing Dr. B’s credibility. The author starts the interview.
“Tell me this,” I said with an edge of challenge in my voice, “is it really possible to be an intelligent, critically thinking person and still believe that the 4 gospels were written by the people who’s names have been attached to them?”
Um, rude? There’s asking the hard questions, and then there’s this.
Setting that aside, there are a lot of very intelligent people who believe a lot of really non intelligent things. Because people are complicated. On that basis alone I would agree with Dr. B when he says that yes, it is very possible.
Dr. B says that technically the gospels were anonymous, but that the early church believed that they were the individuals who wrote the books.
“How uniform was the belief that they [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] were the authors?” I asked.
“There are no known competitors for these three gospels,” he said. “Apparently, it was just not in dispute.”
This is not an answer to the question. This is an evasive dodging of the question. Just because there are no known competitors doesn’t mean they actually wrote the books.
“Excuse my skepticism,” I said, “but would anyone have had a motivation to lie by claiming these people wrote the gospels, when they really didn’t?”
That is a good question.
And what about all those other gospels that didn’t make it into the Biblical canon? Is their authorship in doubt? Why does Dr. B think those gospels are less reliable than the ones that did make it into the canon? We never get to know.
Dr. B says that no, no one would have had a motivation to do that at all.
“Remember, these were unlikely characters,” he said. “Mark and Luke weren’t even among the 12 disciples.
Matthew was, but as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas….!”
Here’s the thing: Matthew would have been hated, but he still would have been there. He would have been seen as a credible eye witness. Among the 12 disciples, Matthew’s probably one of the only men likely to have actually been literate. He’d have needed to be able to read and write for his job as tax collector. If someone was writing a book about Jesus, that someone would have had a very good reason to slap Matthew’s name on it, because it is very plausible that Matthew may have written about his experiences. Partly because Matthew was there, and partly because Matthew could write.
They might have used Mark’s name because, if Papias was correct (more on him later), Mark was close to Peter. As a fisherman, I was always told that Peter was probably illiterate. If Mark knew how to read and write and he was a companion of Peter, who was known for being very close to Jesus, well, it makes sense to slap his name on it, too. (Nobody would have believed Peter wrote it because Peter probably couldn’t write.)
As to Luke…. maybe no one would have had a reason to slap his name on there. Maybe Luke did write the book of Luke. I don’t really know, and honestly I don’t really care.
For those of you wondering whether or not the non canonical books written about Jesus are going to be addressed, they are, right now, in this one sentence:
“Contrast this with what happened when the fanciful apocryphal gospels were written much later. People chose the names of well known and exemplary figures to be their fictitious authors–Phillip, Peter, Mary, James. Those names carried a lot more weight than the names of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren’t true.”
How do you know those “fanciful apocryphal gospels” weren’t written by the people they were named after? What evidence do you have that these apocryphal gospels are fanciful? Oh nevermind.
You may have noticed that Dr. B is leaving something out. He’s only told us about the first 3 gospels. What about the gospel of John? The author notices this too, and mentions it.
“Yes, he’s the one exception….and interestingly, John is the only gospel about which there is some question about authorship.”
That’s just not true.
It is kind of hard to google this, because when you do you get a bunch of Christian writers saying that of course Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels! They will tell you that some scholars doubt this, but not why. I would like to hear from these scholars themselves.
I did finally find this article, which explains a little bit about it. It’s very long, but worth a read.
Srobel asks what exactly is in dispute about the authorship of GJohn. Dr. B says that it was definitely written by someone named John, but exactly which one isn’t clear.
“You see, the testimony of a Christian writer named Papias, dated about AD 125, refers to John the apostle and John the Elder, and it’s not clear from the context whether he’s talking about one person from 2 perspectives, or from 2 different people. But granted that exception the rest of the early testimony is unanimous that it was John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, who wrote the gospel.”
What testimony? Please provide sources.
Setting that aside, Papias was circa AD125. Jesus is said to have died circa AD30. That’s nearly 95 years later, which would throw his reliability into question.
Dr. B goes on to say that the last few verses of John are also questionable, but that he thinks someone merely edited the book of John, and that he has no problem believing that John had an editor. I wouldn’t either, except that Christians will tell you that the Bible was written “by Holy men, who spake as they were moved of God.” If that’s true, why does God need an editor?
While I appreciated Dr. B’s comments so far, I wasn’t ready to move on yet. The issue of who wrote the gospels is tremendously important, and I wanted specific details.
No it’s not. Why is this important? When I was questioning my faith, this was not even on the list of questions I had. I did not care.
How is this relevant to the question of God actually existing? The author spends pages and pages and pages establishing that the authors of the 4 gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and yet, I fail to see why? Just because someone other than these people may have written the gospels doesn’t mean they’re any less reliable? I mean, if you find out that the book of Mark was written by someone not Mark, is that actually going to destroy your faith?
Strobel asks Dr. B to get more specific about evidence, so Dr. B obliges.
“The oldest and probably most significant testimony comes from Papias, who in about AD 125 specifically affirmed that Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations. In fact, he said Mark ‘made no mistake’ and ‘did not include any false statement.’ And Papias said Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.
The oldest testimony, in other words, comes from someone who wrote about it 95 years later. Color me incredibly skeptical.
Who exactly is saying that Mark “made no mistake?” Peter or Papias? How would Papias even know? And If Peter was an illiterate fisherman, how could he possibly know if Mark had made any false statement? Mark could have told him he wrote it all down right…. and then didn’t. Or perhaps Peter was a man prone to exaggeration. Perhaps Peter misremembered a few things. Perhaps he even re-wrote his own memories to fit in with what others were saying at the time.
We can’t know for sure, and there are a number of reasons to doubt the reliability of the gospels. Especially if you use a source like Papias, who very possibly wasn’t even alive in Jesus’s lifetime.
“Then Irenaeus, writing about AD180, confirmed the traditional authorship. Here–” he reached for a book. He flipped it open and read Irenaeus’ words:
Matthew published his own gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.
I’m not sure what the source for this is. Strobel has endnotes, but they’re not numbered, so I can’t be sure, but I think this is taken from a book written by Dr. B himself. Set that aside. Irenaeus wrote this circa AD180… about 150 years after Jesus died.
If Papias and Irenaeus are our only sources for such information, we have a serious problem.95-150 years is a serious time gap. Let’s look at a more recent example of how myths and legends can grow over time. In fact, they don’t appear to really need much time at all.
Consider George Washington. That story about him chopping down a cherry tree and then telling the truth about it, even though he knew it would get him in trouble? It is doubtful that this event actually took place. It is, from what I have read, nothing but a myth. This particular myth seems to have been created a mere 7ish years after Washington’s death, and it has lasted at least a hundred years.
It is not much of a stretch, therefore, to believe that a lot of half truths, misunderstandings, and even outright lies could have sprang up during the gap between Jesus’s death and the time of Papias and Irenaeus. In fact, I would be shocked if that were not the case.
But the testimony of Papias and Irenaeus convinces the author, a supposedly confirmed skeptic, and he is ready to move on.
The author states that he wants to explore what kind of literary genre the gospels actually are. And you know what, if I was a Christian, that would be a fascinating question. It would still be a fascinating question if an atheist wanted to learn more about the Bible, how it was written, and what kind of writing it was. It is not, however, a question that I ever had when I was questioning my faith. It is not a question that I have even now.
The author asks Dr. B why the gospels have a lot of gaps. For instance, not all of the gospels talk about Jesus’ birth, and only Luke mentions an event from Jesus’ childhood. The rest mainly focus on Jesus’ life as an adult.
Dr. B says that there are 2 reasons, one literary, the other theological. You see, back then, people didn’t think it was necessary to devote time to all parts of the person’s life. They only wrote down the important parts. They only wrote down the parts of history they could learn from, so they focused on the parts of Jesus’ life that they felt were exemplary.
They also did not feel it was necessary to tell the story in strictly chronological order or even to quote people verbatim, as long as the essence of what they said was preserved. Ancient Greek and Hebrew didn’t even have a symbol for quotation marks.
That last sentence is very true. There was no punctuation in ancient Hebrew or Greek. Set that aside.
The thing is, as any good Christian will tell you, we can learn something from everything that is written in the Bible. In fact, a good Christian will tell you that each time they read the Bible, they learn something different. Good Christians believe this is true of every single part of Jesus’ life. So, why didn’t God tell the Biblical writers, “write EVERYTHING. Even if it doesn’t seem important, write it all down?”
That’s nitpicky of me. Maybe God, assuming he exists, didn’t think those parts were important either. Dr. B’s explanation is a plausible one, and it doesn’t really affect the gospel writer’s reliability, in my opinion.
The author then asks about the theological reason.
“It flows out of the point I just made. Christians believe that, as wonderful as Jesus’ life and teachings and miracles were, they were meaningless if it were not historically factual that Christ died and was raised from the dead and that this provided…forgiveness…so Mark, in particular, as the writer of probably the earliest gospel, devotes roughly half his narrative to the events leading up to an including one week’s period of time and culminating in Christ’s death and resurrection.”
I actually don’t have a problem with this. The fact that one author may have thought something was important, and another didn’t…. I mean… I’m not even seeing how this is relevant to the reliability of the gospels? So John didn’t think the birth of Jesus was important enough to talk about. So what? Perhaps he felt that lots of other people had already written about it(perhaps in those “fanciful apocryphal gospels?”), so it did not need to be repeated? Perhaps he simply did not care? Perhaps his audience would not have cared?
We’re going to stop there for now. These chapters are relatively short, but I still feel they cover a lot more ground than is possible in one post. Tune in next time to hear about how totally reliable Papias and Irenaeus are as witnesses despite the 95-150 year gap.