Testing The Eyewitness Evidence
We last left off with the protagonist, Lee, interviewing Dr. B. They have taken a short recess during which they explore the college campus and enjoy some fresh air. They have established that the gospels were absolutely written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, likely much sooner than most scholars think. Next we will move on to discussing whether or not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are reliable witnesses.
There are 8 different tests Lee wants to go over. These are apparently common tests to see if eyewitnesses are reliable. Setting aside, I guess, the fact that neither Mark nor Luke are even presumed to be eyewitnesses.
Each test is a sub section heading.
1. The Intention Test
This test seeks to determine whether it was the state or implied intention of the writers to accurately preserve history. “were these first-century witnesses even interested in recording what really happened?” I asked.
Dr. B thinks they totally were. I am a layman, but I would tend to agree. Dr. B cites as evidence a passage from the book of Luke.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Fun fact: some scholars believe that “Most Excellent Theophilius” originally read as “Most Excellent Theophile,” and was, in fact, a woman.*
Lee points out that none of the other gospels start out this way, and I honestly don’t get his point. Why is this even a question an atheist would have? Christian!me never wondered this, and atheist!me doesn’t either.
Does Lee think that atheists think that the gospel writers were particularly talented fiction writers who’s stories somehow managed to be distorted into gospel truth? Because, uh, that’s not how we think.
Dr. B says that the gospels all resemble each other as far as genre goes, and then says that in John 20:31 it states
but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.
Lee points out that this sounds less like a statement of historicity and more like a statement of theology. Dr. B counters that accurate theology has to come from accurate history.
“There’s an important piece of implicit evidence that can’t be overlooked. Consider the way the gospels are written–in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in an lot of other ancient writings.”
Are….. we reading the same gospels? I think you must be reading a completely different set of gospels than I am because, uh, there are plenty of inaccurate details, both large and small. And I’m not sure what other ancient mythologies were like at the time, but some of the gospel stories are pretty blatantly impossible. They do sound like mythology, and some of the mythology isn’t even original to Christianity.
Lee mentions to Dr. B that the early Christians believed Jesus was going to return in their lifetimes, which is why it took them so long to write shit down. Why write a history book if you believe the world is going to end soon? So, by the time the gospel writers got around to writing, they didn’t have any primary sources to draw from.
This makes sense to me, especially in a world where the literacy rate was considerably lower than it is today. Today we would use the printed word to spread the news, but I’m not at all sure how it would have worked in the ancient world.
Dr. B says that what Lee’s just described might have happened with other religions, but certainly not Christianity. Dr. B thinks that Jesus’ teachings show that there will be a considerable amount of time between his first and second coming, but set that aside. His real argument is that Christianity ultimately came from Judaism.
“For 8 centuries the Jews lived with the tension between the repeated pronouncements of prophets that the Day of the Lord was at hand and the continuing history of Israel. And still the followers of these prophets recorded…the words of the prophets. Given that Jesus’ followers looked upon him as being even greater than a prophet, it seems very reasonable that they would have done the same thing.”
I have heard that, for ancient Jews, “The Day of the Lord” meant something totally different than what it means to 21st century Christians. To them, the Lord’s coming didn’t mean the world would necessarily end.
Take that with a grain of salt and set it aside, because I’m not sure how true that is.
Maybe some people did write gospels that were written very shortly after Jesus’ death. Those gospels you dismissed as “fanciful apocryphal?” The Q document, perhaps?
Lee then asks Dr. B if perhaps the gospel writers, believing that Jesus spoke through prophets after his resurrection, bothered to distinguish what the historical Jesus said vs what later prophets said.
It’s a good question, but how is this relevant to whether or not I believe in Christianity? This falls under the “cool, but ultimately irrelevant” category.
We are told that Dr. B smiles as he demolishes this argument.
There are occasions when early Christian prophecy is referred to, but it’s always distinguished from what the Lord has said. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul clearly distinguishes when he has a word from the Lord and when he is quoting the historical Jesus.
We also know that people were actually recording what they knew of historical!Jesus because of what we don’t find in the Bible.
After Jesus’ ascension there were a number of controversies that threatened the early church–should believers be circumcised, speak in tongues, how to keep Jew and Gentile united, the appropriate roles of women in ministry…
These issues could have been conveniently resolved if the early Christians had simply read back into the gospels what Jesus had told them from the world beyond. But this never happened. The continuance of these controversies demonstrates that Christians were interested in distinguishing between what happened during Jesus’ lifetime and what was debated later in the churches.”
Fair enough, I suppose. Although it was never a question I really had. Silly me, I just kind of assumed the gospel writers were sincere but sincerely mistaken. Or that mistakes crept in over time.
We’ll stop there for now. Next week we’ll go over the second test. No, it won’t take 8 weeks to cover all 8 tests. Some of them are rather short.
*Who Wrote The Gospels, Randal McCraw Helms