May 24, 2015
The Reliability of the Gospels
Dear Dr. Craig,
First off, I want to thank you for all that you have done for me through your ministry and hope that your reach continues to spread. I grew up in a conservative Christian home and for the most part accepted everything that I had been taught. Then during my junior year of high school I read some Richard Dawkins, and the likes, and quickly lost my faith. About six or so months later I discovered your ministry and my life was changed! Your arguments convinced me and in no time I had gone back to my faith. I read On Guard and Reasonable Faith among other Christian authors as well. I felt that my faith was strong and I even considered changing my major to Philosophy for a short time. But now, I am saddened to say that I am slowly losing my faith in the Christian God.
Before I go into my reasons for losing my faith, I want to point out that at this point I still believe that Christ rose from the dead but if I were to give that up I would comfortably sit in a deist position, being that I consider arguments for a Gods existence to be convincing. So, the reason for my diminishing faith is that I have found that I can no longer trust the Old or New Testament. I will leave the Old Testament aside for now and focus on the new. In your books you have maintained that the earliest gospel was Mark and that it was written some 40 years after the death of Jesus, give or take a few years. You also hold that in the time between the event of Jesus' death and the writing of the Gospel of Mark that legends could not have infiltrated the original narrative because 40 years is not long enough. I find this reasoning very problematic.
I could grant you that the resurrection did happen (which I hold to) due to its attestation in multiple gospels and the Pauline epistles but that would in now way confirm any of the stories or teachings of Jesus. His whole life could have been made up by the writers, not due to them being corrupt but that these were the simply the stories they were told of Jesus that were passed on to the early Christians. My question here is how can we trust any of the stories of Jesus if they are not attested in each of the synoptic gospels?
I also find that the explanation that 4o years is too small of a window for legend to become present hard to buy into. First, within 4o years it is likely that few if any of the original eyewitnesses were alive being that the lifespan of humans then was minimal. So how could the stories be checked for accuracy if the eyewitnesses themselves were no longer around to do so? Secondly, when the eyewitnesses went to tell their story so others would follow Jesus they could not have told every single person from every town, therefore relying on the ones they told to pass on the story. It is plausible to think that if one's wife wasn't convinced by the stories of Jesus that the eyewitnesses told her husband then her husband would make up an even more miraculous story, like Jesus turning water into wine, to get her to believe. This is just one scenario of many that very likely took place leading to multiple if not the majority of Jesus' life being composed of stories that were made up to convince others.
Now as I stated earlier, I am a Christian but it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold the New Testament as authoritative concerning the matters of Jesus' life.
I was disheartened to read your letter, David, not simply because of the reported erosion of your newly revitalized faith, but also because of the misunderstandings that your letter betrays. Though you report having read On Guard, Reasonable Faith, and books by other Christian authors, it’s evident to me that you have not mastered the content of those books or you would not be asking the questions that you are. I hope that you realize that this rebuke and what follows is offered in love.
First and foremost, you do not seem to grasp the fact that the fundamental truth of the Christian worldview does not require the general reliability, much less inerrancy, of the Gospels in the way you seem to think. If we have good grounds for thinking that God exists and that He has specially revealed Himself in Jesus by raising him from the dead in vindication of his radical personal claims to divine authority, then we have good grounds for thinking that the Christian worldview is true, and the rest is in-house discussion. Since you believe in both those truths, it is just illogical to conclude from uncertainty about “the stories or teachings of Jesus” that therefore the Christian God does not exist.
For that reason, you will find in the third edition of Reasonable Faith no chapter on the general historical reliability of the Gospels, since that is a logically posterior question to the truth of the Christian worldview. In the earlier, second edition, the editors at Crossway insisted that I include such a chapter, despite my protests that my case did not depend upon the general reliability of the Gospels. The facts concerning Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and post-mortem appearances can be established independently of any such assumption. Nevertheless, at the editors’ insistence, I invited New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg to write such a chapter. I succeeded in deleting this distracting chapter from my case in the third edition, but reading your letter, I almost wish I had left it in! But the bottom line is that you have no good reason for “losing. . . faith in the Christian God.”
Second, the same historical approach that I took in Reasonable Faith to the events at the end of Jesus’ earthly life can be applied to the earlier events and sayings of his life. I myself did this, you may remember, with respect to Jesus’ radical, personal claims to divine authority (chapter 7 of Reasonable Faith). It’s evident from your letter that you haven’t even begun to master the use of the so-called criteria of authenticity which scholars use in investigating particular stories or sayings of Jesus. These criteria make it highly improbable, to put it mildly, that “His whole life could have been made up by the writers, not due to them being corrupt but that these were the simply the stories they were told of Jesus that were passed on to the early Christians.” David, this is precisely sort of conclusion that New Testament historians have excluded on the basis of painstaking historical study of the Gospels.
Your naiveté about their methods is evident in your comment, “how can we trust any of the stories of Jesus if they are not attested in each of the synoptic gospels?” Being attested in all the synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark, and Luke) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of a story’s reliability. It’s not sufficient, for if the evangelists borrowed the story from one another (say, Luke and Matthew got it from Mark), then it is not multiply and independently attested. It is also not necessary, since the synoptists may be using independent sources for the same event, or the event may be independently attested in John or Paul, or the event may pass other criteria (for example, dissimilarity). The point is that your question betrays a complete lack of understanding of how New Testament historical criticism works.
In particular, your ruminations about a 40 year gap between the events of Jesus’ life and the date of the Gospels’ composition betrays a lack of understanding with respect to the sources with which New Testament scholars work. My discussion in Reasonable Faith makes clear that scholars are interested in discerning the earlier sources behind the New Testament documents (such as the tradition mediated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5) or the pre-Markan Passion Story. Some of these sources are incredibly early and plausibly go right back to eyewitness testimony. Paul himself states that many of the eyewitnesses were still about at the time he wrote his letter to the church in Corinth in AD 55. Moreover, oral traditions were carefully handed down and would not likely have departed wildly from the apostolic tradition, which carried enormous authority.
Rather than offering non-historically based conjectures about some chap’s making up stories to convince his wife, you need to get down and dirty with the historical details of each story or saying in the Gospels and explore what evidence scholars offer for and against its authenticity. This is hard work, and you may not be willing to undertake it. But apart from such study, your conjectures have no weight and would not pass muster in a scholarly discussion.
If you are willing to undertake such study, then here are some recommended sources.
B = Beginner
I = Intermediate
A = Advanced
Blomberg, Craig. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007. (B)
Carson, D. A., Moo, Douglas J., and Morris, Leon. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992. (I)
Evans, Craig. Fabricating Jesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2006. (I)
France, R. T. The Evidence for Jesus. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986. (B)
Green, Joel, et al., eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992. (A)
Gundry, Robert H. Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993. (A)
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1990. (I)
Hemer, Colin. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990. (A)
Johnson, Luke. The Real Jesus. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996. (B)
Meier, John. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 4 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1991-. (A)
Wilkins, Michael and Moreland, J.P., eds. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. (I)
These are really good books, David, and will restore your confidence in the general historical reliability of the Gospels.
Third, you have misconstrued my arguments for the historical credibility of certain facts. I, in fact, think that Luke-Acts was written prior to Paul’s death in the AD 60s and, given Luke’s use of Mark, Mark’s Gospel in the AD 40s, just ten years after Jesus’ crucifixion. But I’m willing to accept the AD 70s date for the sake of argument. A gap of 40 years is extraordinarily short when compared to most of the sources for secular Greco-Roman history. My point was not that “legends could not have infiltrated the original narrative because 40 years is not long enough.” Rather I was citing the professional Greco-Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White to the effect that even a gap of two generations is not enough for legendary influences to wipe out the hard core of historical facts, a judgment based on his study of Herodotus. The point is not that legendary accretion will not occur (it certainly does in Herodotus!) but that the historical core of the story will not be expunged by the growth of legends in so short a time. You’ll notice that in my statement of the facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection I include only the core of the story, not the secondary details. In any case, I employ this argument merely to show that we cannot justifiably assume that the Gospels are unreliable unless they are proven correct on some point. We should approach them with a least an attitude of neutrality.
In short, you seem to have been taken in by a sort of a priori scepticism concerning the records of Jesus’ life which is quite unjustified by the evidence. I truly hope that you will take the time to look at that evidence and read some of the books listed above.