Jesus and Christian origins continue to fascinate the American public. The religion shelves of all major bookstore chains stock numerous titles on these topics. Unfortunately, they range all the way from books written by responsible scholars to works of sheer fiction, foisted on the unsuspecting reader as the latest “true discovery” about the beginnings of Christianity. We may discern three categories of such volumes that lie beyond the mainstream of serious, biblical scholarship.
First, and most disturbing of all, are books based on no genuine historical evidence of any kind. A retired professor of atmospheric science at a major state university becomes enthralled with UFOs and publishes two books about an alleged Aramaic document, found in the Middle East but then (conveniently) lost again, preserved only in German translation by a “UFOlogist,” that rewrites the Gospel of Matthew. In this document, Jesus becomes an alien from outer space, visiting earth to teach doctrine similar to modern “New Age” philosophy!1 Or again, a best-selling collection of ancient and more recent Christian fiction, called The Archko Volume, purports to release to the public the true accounts of Jesus and early Christianity, without admitting that no responsible historian anywhere believes a shred of its contents to reflect historical fact.2
A second category involves the distortion of newly discovered evidence. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed shortly after World War II, all kinds of sensationalist claims were made for how they would radically rewrite the history of Christian origins. That never happened, but another flurry of fanciful exaggerations emerged in the early 1990s when the last round of very fragmentary documents from Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea sect, was finally published and translated. One of the most famous sets of charges comes from a series of works by the Australian writer Barbara Thiering. She alleges that various characters in the documents that describe the members of the Qumran community, and others in the Jewish world of its day, are code names for John the Baptist, Jesus, and some of his followers!3 There is, however, no reason to suspect that Qumran invented such codes, not least because the vast majority of its documents predate the first century and the birth of Christ. Not surprisingly, Thiering has garnered no significant following among fellow scholars.
Distortions of new discoveries can also come from conservative circles. Carsten Thiede, a German evangelical, has written several recent works arguing that tiny fragments of Greek manuscripts found at Qumran, containing just a few letters each, actually represent verses from the Gospel of Mark. If true, these finds would require a date for that Gospel earlier than that which even conservative scholars have usually defended. Thiede also believes that a copy of Matthew in Greek, long preserved in the Magdalen College, Oxford, library, dates to the mid–first century. But virtually all other scholars who have examined these claims find the equation of the Qumran fragments with Mark in error and the Oxford papyrus to have come from the same codex (or book) to which papyri dating to the 200s, now housed in Paris and Barcelona, belonged.4 Conservative Christians might wish that Thiede’s hypotheses proved likely, but it rightly discredits them in the eyes of others if they try to support highly improbable theses simply for the sake of furthering their apologetic.
The third category brings us even closer to the boundaries of responsible scholarship. There are fully credentialed New Testament scholars on the theological “far left” who do bona fide research, but present their opinions as if they reflected a consensus of scholarship when in fact they represent the “radical fringe.” By far the most famous example of this in recent years was the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of individuals, mostly New Testament scholars (though many had not specialized in historical-Jesus research), who initially numbered more than two hundred but eventually dwindled to less than fifty, and who courted media attention for their semiannual conferences throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Voting on every saying and deed attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels, plus the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas,5 the Jesus Seminar concluded that only 18 percent of the sayings and 16 percent of the actions of Jesus in these five documents represented something close to what Jesus really said or did.6
These conclusions, however, were virtually determined by the Seminar’s presuppositions and method. In a particularly candid listing of these presuppositions, the Seminar explains that miracles cannot happen, so that all of the supernatural events of the Gospels are rejected from the outset, and that Jesus never talked about himself, or about the future, or about final judgment (a topic unworthy of an enlightened teacher).7 These latter presuppositions go far beyond the anti-supernatural bias of the former, which would conclude that Jesus could not have believed himself to be divine or have predicted the future inerrantly. Instead, they affirm what has been true of no other religious leader in history, namely, that Jesus did not make any claims about his identity or speculate at all about coming events. And, while it may be true that certain modern liberals cannot stomach the notion of a judgment day when all humanity will be brought to account before God, such a belief was nearly universal in Jesus’ world, so it would be astonishing if he did not reflect on the topic.
The Jesus Seminar has now completed its work and disbanded but, at the beginning of the new millennium, a comparable Acts Seminar was formed and initial results published, which suggest that the same flawed approaches are being adopted.8 Fortunately, it has received far less media attention; one can hope that it will simply fizzle out altogether.
Meanwhile, one of the better-kept secrets from the twenty-first-century public is that the so-called Third Quest for the historical Jesus over the past quarter-century has for the most part been proving more and more optimistic about how much we can know about the founder of Christianity. Ben Witherington’s survey of approaches in the mid-1990s offers an excellent overview. Focusing on different portions of the Gospels’ portraits and comparing them with the unprecedented quantity of information now available about the first-century Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds, responsible mainstream New Testament scholars have demonstrated the numerous ways in which Jesus was a Spirit-filled prophet of a coming new age, a social reformer, a wise sage, and a marginalized messiah.9 Only slightly less intense is a renewed scholarly scrutiny of the apostle Paul, which Witherington has similarly surveyed, including a rehabilitation of the historical value of the Book of Acts, especially those sections that deal with Paul’s ministry.10
But outside of distinctively evangelical circles, even in mainstream, centrist New Testament scholarship, it is still by no means believed that any substantial majority of the Gospels or Acts is historically accurate. Standard criteria are employed to separate the more historical from the less historical parts.11 Yet here again, recent studies have suggested that these criteria prove inadequate for what they claim to accomplish. The two most common criteria in Gospels scholarship have become known as “dissimilarity” and “multiple attestation.” The dissimilarity criterion accepts as authentic that which sets an event or saying in the Gospels off from both the conventional Jewish world of Jesus’ day as well as from subsequent Christianity, since it is then unlikely that any other Jew or Christian would have invented it. The criterion of multiple attestation accepts as more probably historical that which is presented in more than one Gospel or in more than one literary form or source that the Gospels employed. Both of these criteria can point out elements that are securely anchored in the ministry of the historical Jesus, but they cannot logically eliminate items that do not pass the two tests. Jesus overlapped with his Jewish predecessors, while early Christians accurately imitated him in numerous respects. Solitary witnesses may also communicate historical truth. So we need more sophisticated criteria if we are going to challenge details in the Gospels as not reflecting accurate history.12
In fact, several scholars have recently developed a four-part criterion that makes it more likely that large swaths of the Gospels are historically accurate. N. T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England, and arguably evangelicalism’s leading New Testament scholar today, calls it the double dissimilarity and similarity criterion. German scholars Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz, and Dagmar Winter all speak of the criterion of historical plausibility. In each case, it is argued, numerous features in the Gospels simultaneously demonstrate (1) enough continuity with Jewish backgrounds to be credible in an Israelite setting from the first third of the first century;
(2) enough discontinuity with conventional Judaism to suggest it would not have been invented by an average Jew; (3) enough continuity with early Christianity to show that Jesus was not uniformly misunderstood by his followers; and (4) enough discontinuity with the early Jesus movement to suggest that one of the first Christians did not invent it. When all four of these conditions are fulfilled, we may be very confident that the Gospels present us with accurate information. Wright is more optimistic than the trio of Germans about how much material meets these conditions, but even the writings of the latter accept many of the central themes of the Gospels, certainly many more details than modern, highly skeptical German scholarship usually has acknowledged.13
The modest scope of this book prevents me from commenting, even briefly, on each of the central themes or portions of the New Testament data. But I can point to numerous more general features that support a substantial measure of confidence in the historical trustworthiness of the five New Testament books that traditionally have been assumed to present a faithful record of the life of Jesus and the first generation of Christian history—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Book of Acts. In doing so, we don our historians’ hats and try, for the moment, to bracket Christian belief. We do not want to be guilty of doing what we so sharply criticize the Jesus Seminar for doing, which is to presuppose our conclusions.14 But even if we limit ourselves to the approaches taken by the classical historians who study other people, events, and institutions from the ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds, a cumulative case emerges which suggests that the Gospels and Acts are very historically reliable.
The standard starting point for investigating the trustworthiness of an ancient document does not deal with the credibility of its contents, per se, but rather asks if we can even be confident we have anything close to what the author of that document originally wrote. In most cases, the oldest copies we have of a given book date from centuries after it was first written. Nor do very many copies of a given book typically exist from the eras before the printing press was invented. For example, there are only nine or ten good manuscripts for Caesar’s Gallic War, and the oldest derives from nine hundred years after the dates of the events described. Only thirty-five of Livy’s 142 books of Roman history survive, and these in about twenty manuscripts, only one of which is as old as the fourth century. Only four and one-half of Tacitus’s fourteen books of Roman history have survived, and these in only two manuscripts dating to the ninth and eleventh centuries.15
By contrast, the textual evidence for the New Testament from the first centuries after it was written is staggering. Scholars of almost every theological stripe agree that Christian scribes copied the New Testament with extraordinary care, matched only by the accuracy of Jewish scribes copying the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). In the original Greek alone, more than five thousand manuscripts or manuscript fragments of portions of the New Testament have been preserved from the centuries during which the Bible was copied by hand. The oldest of these is a scrap of papyrus designated p52 that contains parts of John 18:31– 33 and 37–38 and dates from the first third of the second century A.D., no more than forty years after John’s Gospel was first written in the 90s. More than thirty papyri date from the late second through early third centuries. Some of these contain large portions of entire New Testament books. One of these covers most of the Gospels and Acts (p45); another, most of the letters of Paul (p46). Four very reliable and nearly complete New Testaments date from the fourth ()and B) and fifth centuries (A and C).
All kinds of minor variations distinguish these manuscripts from one another, but the vast majority of these variations involve mere changes in spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of letters, words, or phrases. Only about four hundred (less than one per page in an average English translation) have any significant bearing on the meaning of the passage at hand, and the most important variations are usually noted in the footnotes of modern-language translations of the Bible. The only textual variants that affect more than a sentence or two (and most affect only individual words or phrases) are John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9–20. Neither of these passages very likely reflects what John or Mark originally wrote, though the story in John—about the woman caught in adultery—still stands a fairly good chance of being historically accurate. But overall, 97 to 99 percent of the original Greek New Testament can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt. Moreover, no Christian doctrine is founded solely, or even primarily, on any textually disputed passage.16
Thus even the most liberal members of the Jesus Seminar agree with very conservative, evangelical scholars that there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support the claims of some mod-ern-day Mormons or Muslims that the text of the New Testament became so corrupted over the centuries that we have no way of being sure what the original contained. These claims in fact contradict the official teachings of both religions. Joseph Smith’s declarations, enshrined in the distinctive, additional Scriptures of the Latter-day Saints, and Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, both refer to the Bible as the Word of God and strongly support the accuracy of its contents, while stopping short of affirming full-fledged inerrancy. But the unofficial teachings of many leaders in both movements have, unjustifiably, often called this accuracy into question.17
Once we have established that we have a trustworthy reconstruction of what an ancient document contained, based on the comparison of the manuscripts that exist from a later date, we are ready to begin to assess the truthfulness of its contents. The next standard question for historians of antiquity is if we can determine the author of the document and the date at which it was written. If the author turns out to be someone who was in a position to know the facts about the people or the events described, if we can determine that his or her character was generally trustworthy, our conviction about the reliability of the document increases. If the date at which the work was written was within the lifetime of eyewitnesses of the events narrated, our confidence similarly rises. If these conditions are not fulfilled, we become more skeptical about the contents of the history that is narrated.
How do the Gospels and Acts fare when tested by these criteria? Remarkably well, at least by ancient standards. Strictly speaking, the authors of these five books are anonymous, since the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do not appear in any verse as the writers of these documents. The names do appear, however, in all the existing manuscripts as titles to the four Gospels. Yet it is unlikely that four early Christians independently decided to call their writings “The Gospel according to X” (where “X” stands for the name of the author). It is more probable that the early church added these parallel titles to distinguish one Gospel from the next when they were first combined to form a fourfold collection.18
On the other hand, among the many Christian writers from the second through fourth centuries who commented on New Testament origins, no other names besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were ever put forward as possible authors of the Gospels and Acts. The earliest of these writers, Papias, was a disciple of the apostle John and wrote in the early second century, just one generation after the death of that last apostle. A consideration of everything Papias claimed about the Gospels lies beyond our scope here, and there are certain statements of his that appear less than fully reliable.19 But would the early church uniformly have ascribed the first three Gospels and Acts to Matthew, Mark, and Luke without believing them to have been their true authors? After all, the later second- through fifth-century apocryphal Gospels and Acts were all (falsely) ascribed to highly reputable, influential early Christians to try to make them appear as authoritative and credible as possible. Thus we have Gospels supposedly written by Peter and James, Thomas and Philip, Bartholomew and Matthias (the replacement for Judas who betrayed Jesus), and even Nicodemus and Mary. Similarly, apocryphal Acts appear in the names of Andrew, John, Peter, Paul, and Thomas.20
In comparison, Mark and Luke are far more obscure characters in the pages of the New Testament. Mark appears nowhere by name in the Gospels; in Acts he is best known as the traveling companion of Paul and Barnabas who deserted them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). Luke appears only in the closing greetings in three of Paul’s letters, from which we also learn that he was a doctor (Col. 4:14; cf. also 2 Tim. 4:11, Philem. 24). Neither was one of the twelve “apostles”; both prove unlikely candidates for an ascription of authorship unless they actually wrote the documents attributed to them (in Luke’s case, both the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles). Matthew was one of the Twelve but, as a former tax collector working (indirectly) for the hated Romans, he would have been the most notorious from an orthodox Jewish perspective. Like Simon the Zealot (at the opposite end of the political spectrum, violently opposed to Rome), Matthew would not have been one of the first nine or ten disciples to be chosen if one were trying to lend authority or credibility to a fictitious document written by someone else.
John, on the other hand, was one of the inner core of three disciples (with his brother James and Peter) who were privy to experiences in Jesus’ life that the rest were not. An apocryphal Acts is attributed to him, as we have noted, and Papias’s testimony is unclear as to whether he thought it was John the apostle who authored the Gospel bearing his name or a different John, called the elder, who was a second-generation follower of the apostle. But the question for which no good answer has ever emerged, if the author of “John” were not the son of Zebedee and apostle by that name, is why does this writer (unlike the Synoptists—Matthew, Mark, and Luke) always refer to John the Baptist merely as “John” and expect his audience to know which John was in view? And the apparent self-reference by the author of this Gospel, five times referring to “the beloved disciple,” comports well with one who belonged to Jesus’ inner circle (see John 13:23–25; 19:26–27, 34–35; 20:2–5, 8; 21:1–7, 20–22).21
Liberal New Testament scholars today tend to put Mark a few years one side or the other of A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke–Acts sometime in the 80s, and John in the 90s. As for dating, all of these documents are quoted or alluded to in early-second-century Christian writings, so they can scarcely be dated to later than the first century. Explicit statements combined with reasonable inferences from the various “Church Fathers” lead most conservative scholars, however, to locate all three Synoptic Gospels plus Acts in the 60s with John still in the 90s.22
The internal evidence of these five books meshes well with the earlier dates. A completely convincing account of the abrupt end of Acts has never been given, unless Luke was writing shortly after the events with which the book concludes. Why else would he spend more than a quarter of his account narrating the arrest, imprisonment, trials, and appeal of Paul (chaps. 21–28) and then leave us hanging with Paul’s two-year period of house arrest in Rome awaiting the results of his appeal, unless Luke was writing before he knew what those results were? But if this logic proves compelling, then he must have written Acts in about A.D. 62, since we know from other ancient sources that Festus came to power in Judea in 59. And we know from Acts that Paul appealed to the emperor shortly after Festus’s accession and that he spent the subsequent winter shipwrecked on the island of Malta and the next two years in Rome.23
We may then infer that the Gospel of Luke was written before the Acts of the Apostles, since the latter forms the sequel to the former. Because most modern scholars believe Luke relied in part on Mark’s Gospel, Mark must be dated even earlier. Perhaps all three of these works were written, then, in the early 60s. According to Irenaeus, who wrote toward the end of the second century, Matthew compiled his account “while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome” (Against Heresies 3.1.1). This also requires a date no later than the mid-60s, after which both Christian leaders lost their lives in Nero’s persecution of the church (A.D. 64–68).
The point to be stressed, however, is that on either the more liberal set of dates or the more conservative one, the Gospels and Acts were written in the first century. Those that were not written by eyewitnesses of the life of Christ like Matthew and John were written by people in a position to interview those eyewitnesses— Mark and Luke. This statement also holds true even if we adopt the more skeptical approach that these documents were originally anonymous, following the standard liberal assumption that the authors were second-generation Christian followers of the apostles. Furthermore, we must remember that first-century Christianity faced numerous opponents who would have delighted in refuting the claims of this fledgling religion. What better way to do that than to declare that the Gospels and Acts simply did not tell the story accurately? As long as hostile eyewitnesses to the life of Christ and the formation of the church were still living, such a rebuttal was always possible. But there is no record anywhere that anyone ever made such a charge. In fact the earliest and most enduring charge that non-Christian Jews made against Christian-ity’s claims, beginning already during Christ’s life, tacitly admitted the truthfulness of its historical records (see below, p. 48).
Today, thirty to sixty years between a series of events and the historical records that narrate them seems like a long time. If Jesus was crucified in around A.D. 30, and the earliest Gospel was written in the 60s and the latest in the 90s, surely considerable distortion could have developed even during this period of time. Part of our response to this allegation comes later in this chapter (see pp. 33–36). Here two comments are in order. First, there is reason to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John used earlier written sources, shorter than an entire Gospel, in researching and writing at least portions of their books. These earlier sources may be dated to as early as the 50s. The identical wording of numerous sayings of Jesus, translated from his original Aramaic into Greek, found jointly in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, suggests their dependence on a common source other than Mark.24 Less certain but still quite possible is John’s use of a “signs source,” often dated to the 60s, for his distinctive miracle stories, in this case because of a unique style perceptible in parts of these narratives. Interestingly, even the Jesus Seminar accepts both of these hypotheses as probable, thereby cutting in half the period of time they believe many of the words and deeds of Jesus circulated before being compiled in some kind of written documents (from A.D. 30–50 versus 30–70 or 80 for the Synoptics, and from 30–60versus 30–90 for John).25
Second, even sixty years between a set of events and a written history about them is a remarkably short period of time by ancient standards. The largely legendary sagas of early Greek and Roman heroes circulated by word of mouth for centuries, at times for more than a millennium, before being written down. Even the relatively sober biographies of Alexander the Great, for example, that are still in existence date from the late first and early second centuries A.D. Yet Alexander died in 323 B.C., so there is a gap of about five hundred years before his biographers Plutarch and Arrian wrote their books about his life. Both writers, however, acknowledge copious indebtedness to previous written sources, and classical historians believe they can derive in great detail accurate historical information about Alexander from these works, while at the same time recognizing they are by no means flaw-less.26 The oft-cited quotation by the Roman historian A. N. Sher-win-White of a generation ago still sums up the irony surrounding contemporary skepticism: “So, it is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn....”27
Everything we have said thus far presupposes that the four Evangelists thought they were writing relatively straightforward history and biography. That is certainly what the Gospels and Acts appear to be presenting, and it is the dominant way readers have understood these works throughout church history. But is this presupposition accurate? What are the closest parallels in the literature of the ancient Mediterranean world to these documents, and what can we learn from attempts to label their literary form or genre? Various efforts have been made in modern biblical criticism to declare these works largely fictitious on the basis of alleged parallels with myth, legend, romance, and the like. For the better part of the twentieth century, a majority of critics declared their genre to be sui generis (i.e., one of a kind or, literally, their “own genre”).28 But a majority of recent specialized studies has recognized that the closest parallels are found among the comparatively trustworthy histories and biographies of writers like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides.29 Particularly instructive are the prefaces to Luke and Acts (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–2), which not only parallel the prefaces in the works of these non-Christian historians but also describe Luke relying on previous sources, eyewitness interviews, and reliable oral tradition. While the attempt to prove that Luke was a doctor, based on allegedly distinctive medical vocabulary, was abandoned almost a century ago, Loveday Alexander has demonstrated that the closest parallels to Luke’s language appear in Greco-Roman “technical prose,” which she broadly defines as “scientific” literature, including treatises on such topics as medicine, philosophy, mathematics, engineering, and rhetoric.30 Such parallels again distance the biblical writers from the most overtly fictitious literature of their day and inspire confidence that concern for accuracy was one of the central characteristics of the composition of the Gospels and Acts.
The Gospel of John, of course, is more unlike than like the Synoptics in the details of Jesus’ life it presents, including the linguistic style of Jesus’ speech. Not surprisingly, scholars have questioned whether the Fourth Gospel may be identified by the same genre, and whether it proves to be as accurate, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The purpose statement for the Fourth Gospel appears in John 20:31: “But these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This statement could suggest that John’s concern to promote Christian faith has overridden his concern for historical accuracy. But then one must ask if largely fictitious literature would have promoted such faith, when others in John’s world could have debunked his narrative. Elsewhere it is clear that one of John’s dominant concerns is “truth” (see esp. 19:35; 21:24). It is hard to imagine that he would have thought a largely falsified narrative would help people to believe the truth at any level, historical or theological.31 The reason John includes episodes largely different from the Synoptics is probably because he recognized that his audiences (the churches in and around Ephesus) already knew a fair portion of that material well through his previous preaching ministry among them.32 John’s distinctive style is clearly his own. But the very reason he gives for feeling free to write up Jesus’ teachings more in his own words than Matthew, Mark, and Luke do—namely, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26)—is a key reason for believing John nevertheless preserved the gist of Jesus’ teachings accurately. On a spectrum of ancient works ranging from highly objective chronicles of history to totally fictitious works, John perhaps falls just slightly farther away from the former end than do the Synoptics, but the first three Gospels still remain the closest literary parallels to John in antiquity.33
What often leads modern readers astray is that contemporary conventions for writing history and biography usually require standards of precision that people had not even invented, much less begun to follow, in the ancient world. In cultures that had yet to create any symbol corresponding to our quotation mark, or to feel any need for one, it was perfectly appropriate to rephrase someone else’s language in one’s own words, so long as one was faithful to the “gist” or intention of the original speaker. It was considered not only appropriate but also necessary to abridge or abbreviate long accounts, to insert one’s own commentary into the text (as parenthetical remarks in a world without symbols for parentheses), and to be highly selective as to what one narrated about a given person or event.34 Today we would feel a biography was deficient if it did not narrate something about the birth and upbringing of an individual or if it spent nearly half of its time describing the events immediately preceding that person’s death. The same would be true if it rearranged key events of a person’s life topically, rather than following strict chronology. Yet when Mark and John do precisely these things, they are following good ancient Mediterranean precedent. The “Lives of the Philosophers” compiled by Diogenes Laertius in the early third century often look very much like the canonical Gospels in this respect. When one recalls that Christians believed the most significant feature of Jesus’ life was his death (for the sins of the world), their choice of emphasis makes good sense.
With respect to Acts, much scholarly study has surrounded its speeches. On the one hand, critics sometimes complain that the core message of every speech is the same, irrespective of the speaker. Luke, they allege, must have created a “one-size-fits-all” prototype and indiscriminately attributed it to every early Christian preacher. On the other hand, the critics also observe the extraordinary variation of specific details from one speech to the next, and so again attribute the variety to Luke’s creation. Surely the same speaker, for example Paul, would not have so varied his messages from one occasion to the next.
In fact, these two criticisms largely cancel each other out! What the combination of unity and diversity in the preaching of Acts demonstrates is how perfectly tailored each message is to its particular audience. Paul and Peter may both resemble each other when speaking to the same kinds of audiences, as in the Jewish temple or synagogues (cf., e.g., Acts 3:12–26 with 13:16–48). But Paul will sound quite different speaking to pagans in Lystra for whom the Old Testament and fulfillment of Jewish hopes would have meant nothing (14:15–18)! Still, the core commonalities—the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus and the need to repent of sin to receive forgiveness and the indwelling Holy Spirit—show that there is a unity to the early Christian message that transcends any specific context.35
One may grant that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John thought they were writing good history and biography by the standards of their day. But how successful were they? Those who answer this question negatively often base their opinion on any or all of the following three allegations.
To begin, it is often argued that the first generation of Christians would not have been terribly interested in preserving an accurate historical record of their origins. Three lines of reasoning at first glance appear to support this claim. First, it is alleged that early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the risen Lord what they believed God was telling the churches through them, and that these words would have become intermingled with the teachings of the historical Jesus. After all, it was the same person speaking on both occasions, and Greco-Roman oracles seem to have adopted a similar practice. Second, the first generation of Christianity clearly entertained a lively hope in the end of the world, brought about by the return of Christ, within its lifetime. Who would be around to read a history of their movement anyway? Finally, the ideological bias of the authors—a passionate commitment to Christian theology—would have inevitably skewed their accounts. We must consider each of these charges in turn.
With regard to Christian prophecy, irrespective of possible analogies in other religions of the day, the only actual hard data we have in the New Testament contradict the charge that the words of Jesus during his lifetime were mixed together with what later Christians believed he was saying to the churches. The three actual references in which we learn the contents of first-century Christian prophecy all clearly distinguish their words from those of the historical Jesus. Twice in Acts, Agabus appears on the scene to prophesy—the first time about a coming famine in Judea, the second time about Paul’s imminent imprisonment in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28; 21:11). Once in Revelation, we are told that John’s specific words to local churches were given to him as prophecy (Revelation 2–3 as the outgrowth of 1:3). Nowhere in the Gospels do any of these sayings appear as though Jesus had said them during his lifetime. The hypothesis to the contrary proves groundless.36
With respect to the belief that the world could end at any time, it is important to observe that this was not a new conviction unique to Christians. Jews from the eighth century B.C. onward had heard a succession of prophets declare that the Day of the Lord was at hand (e.g., Joel 2:1; Obad. 14; Hab. 2:3). Yet centuries passed, the world continued to exist in its current form, and Jews inscribed the preaching of those same prophets in books that would form part of their biblical canon. In the intertestamental period, Psalm 90:4 became a favorite text to explain how Judaism could still believe in an imminent judgment day: “[A] day with the Lord is as a thousand years.”37 What seems long from a human perspective is very brief from God’s eternal perspective. Moreover, the Essene sect at Qumran that has given us the Dead Sea Scrolls harbored as vivid a hope as any Jewish group for God’s imminent, apocalyptic intervention into this world to punish his enemies and vindicate his followers. Yet the Essenes produced more literature, including works that enable scholars today to chart the history of their community, than any other Jewish group that we know of in pre-Christian times. Given that all of the first Christians were originally Jews, it is doubtful that a conviction that Jesus might return in their lifetime would keep them from being interested in chronicling their history.
As for the notion that a strong ideological commitment necessarily leads to the falsification or distortion of historical records, in fact at times the opposite is true. There is no question that a special agenda can skew the facts, but in certain instances the very ideological commitments that lead to recording a certain portion of history require that one tell the story straight. Consider the example of Jewish historians after the Nazi holocaust in the mid– twentieth century. Precisely because of their passionate concern that such atrocities never again befall their people (or anyone else), Jewish chroniclers carefully collected and published detail after detail about the horrors their people experienced, culminating in the death of six million. Conversely, it was certain later non-Jewish writers, not personally involved in the events of World War II, that generated the “revisionist” accounts falsely alleging that a far smaller number of victims had been involved.
The practice of the New Testament writers closely parallels this example of modern, Jewish historians. What distinguished Jewish and Christian claims from those of all other religions in the ancient Mediterranean world was the belief that God had acted uniquely in history through real and recent human beings to provide salvation for humanity. What distinguished Christianity from its Jewish roots was the claim that the decisive, once-for-all sin offering was provided by the crucifixion of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who was subsequently vindicated by God through his bodily resurrection from the grave. If these claims are not historically accurate, Christianity collapses.38 Therefore the very theology that the skeptics claim would have warped the New Testament accounts more likely acted as a safeguard against such distortion. What is more, as far as we can tell, the ancients never wrote history without some ideological lens through which events were viewed. Their attitude, in essence, was to ask what point there was in recording history if people could not learn certain lessons from it. At the same time, contrary to the claims of some modern scholars, they could distinguish good from bad history, even granted propagandistic purposes (see esp. Lucian’s On Writing History).39
One may grant that the first followers of Jesus would have been interested in writing a history of the foundation of their movement. But then a second question arises. Were they able to write reliable history? Even if we accept the conservative dates for the Synoptics and Acts (the 60s) and recognize that these books relied on even earlier written sources, eyewitness testimony, and oral tradition, thirty years seems like a long time for everything to have been preserved intact. Bart Ehrman speaks for many skeptics when he likens the process to the children’s game of “tele-phone.”40 Take a room full of a couple dozen people, whisper a fairly lengthy and complicated statement to the first person, have them whisper to the next person what they heard and remembered, and continue the process until the message has been “transmitted” to the last person in the room. When that person is then asked to repeat the initial message out loud for everyone to hear, it is usually hilarious because it has become so garbled. How in the world can we seriously imagine Christians preserving throughout the entire Roman Empire for a whole generation the enormous number of details we find in the Gospels and Acts?
The simplest answer to this question is that the process of transmitting information about Jesus and the early church bore little resemblance to the uncontrolled behavior of children playing “telephone.” The first-century Roman Empire contained only oral cultures. All important information circulated by word of mouth. A majority of the people living in the empire were illiterate. Jewish men had a much higher literacy rate than the rest of the populace because many of them had attended school in local synagogues from age five to about twelve or thirteen. They would have learned enough to be able to read the Hebrew Scriptures, but few could have ever afforded their own copies. So education took place, as it did also in the larger Greco-Roman world, by rote memorization. Many Jewish men had sizable chunks of what we call the Old Testament committed to memory. Would-be rabbis, who underwent additional training during their teenage years as pupils of revered Jewish teachers, in some instances learned the entire Scriptures. There are even accounts of scribes completing a copy of the Old Testament and then having a respected rabbi proofread it by checking it against the version he had memorized! Boys who had access to education in the Greco-Roman world at times learned part or all of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by heart. In this kind of culture, committing the contents of a book as small as a Gospel to memory would have been comparatively easy, especially when we observe that 80 to 90 percent of Jesus’ teachings are couched in poetic form.41
The countercharge may then be raised, however, that we do not have four Gospels that are word-for-word identical. Memorization may account for some of the similarities, though we have already noted that literary dependence of one Gospel on another or on a common source probably explains the majority of texts in which identical wording occurs. But what of all the differences? One of the answers to this question involves a second dimension to the memorization customs of the ancient Middle East. Sacred traditions passed along solely by word of mouth were recounted, sometimes even sung, by storytellers in small villages where the people often gathered around a fire after dark, after supper, in an environment (minus electricity) with little else to do. In these situations, not least to maintain interest in well-known tales, any given storyteller had the right to omit or include, to expand or abbreviate, and to provide commentary on the various details of the stories. But this flexibility in transmission had specific limits. Fixed points in every story, without which the accounts could not be properly understood, had to be preserved accurately, and it was the responsibility of the community to interrupt and correct a storyteller if these were not properly presented. In most instances, a given “performance” varied anywhere from 10 to 40 percent from the previous one. Interestingly, this is very similar to the amounts that one of the Synoptic Gospels varies from another, wherever two or more recount the same episode. So we probably need to feature “developments in the oral tradition” alongside literary copying and theological editing as a significant component in the formation of the Gospels as we know them.42
Two other elements in early Christian oral tradition set it off sharply from Ehrman’s “telephone” analogy. First, there is evidence that rabbis permitted private note-taking after public teaching to facilitate learning and memorization. Although the notion has been lampooned, it is not at all unreasonable to imagine some of Jesus’ disciples scribbling notes to themselves after a day of exposure to his teaching ministry in order to help them remember its highlights. Something quite like that seems to have been the process utilized at Qumran to preserve the teachings of their anonymous “Teacher of Righteousness.”43 Second, the pattern of Peter, John, and James in Acts and the epistles of initiating travels or calling meetings to check up on the arrival of the gospel in a new geographical location shows that the early church wanted to ensure the accuracy of what was preached or taught (see esp. Acts 8, 15, 21; Galatians 1–2). The fledgling church was not the amorphous, free-wheeling entity as it is often portrayed but rather a “purpose-driven” community with an acknowledged leadership and mechanisms of accountability.44
We have seen that the writers of the Gospels and Acts most likely would have been interested in preserving biographies of Jesus and a history of the first generation of Christianity. We have observed that all the mechanisms were in place in their world for them to have done so with a high degree of accuracy. The final question in this series that now must be addressed is, “But did they succeed in this enterprise?” As one compares the four Gospel accounts where they run parallel, or as one tries to fit the information of Acts together with the historical information found in Paul’s epistles, do we find harmony or disunity? Certainly long lists of supposed contradictions here and elsewhere in the Bible have been drawn up.45 Aren’t these enough to disprove claims of historical trustworthiness irrespective of the more general arguments presented thus far?
The only fully adequate way to answer this question would be to look at each alleged contradiction one at a time, which would result in a much larger book. I have elsewhere surveyed virtually all of the most famous supposed contradictions both among the Synoptics and between the Synoptics and John and refer the reader to those fuller treatments.46 A sizable majority of the apparent discrepancies disappear once we recall the freer standards of historical reportage in the ancient world (see above, p. 30). But even our modern, scientific world preserves similar conventions. No one thinks to accuse the news reporter of an error when he or she declares, “President so-and-so announced today that . . . ,” when in fact it was his press secretary who read a document produced by a script writer and presumably run past the president, however briefly. So we should scarcely be surprised when Matthew telescopes the account of the Gentile centurion requesting a miracle from Jesus via Jewish intermediaries (so Luke 7:6) into one in which the centurion himself comes with the request (Matt. 8:5). Acting through an intermediary could be spoken of as acting for oneself.
Numerous other examples could be given. Was the Last Supper celebrated on the night of the Passover meal (so apparently Mark 14:12–16) or before it (so apparently John 18:28 and 19:14)? Probably it was on the Passover, since John 18:28 seems to allude to the weeklong Passover festival, while 19:14 can be taken as the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath during Passover week (as in the NIV). Did Jesus send the demons into the swine in Gerasa (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26) or in Gadara (Matt. 8:28)? Probably it was near Khersa—a city on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, which spelled in Greek could easily yield Gerasa—in the province of Gadara.47 The important point to make here is that none of these problems is new. The early church fathers, writing in the second through sixth centuries, studied the New Testament closely enough to recognize all the apparent discrepancies in the text that modern critics emphasize. Augustine’s famous fifth-century commentary, entitled Harmony of the Gospels, deals with a large number of them. Today, virtually any detailed evangelical commentary on one of the four Gospels or Acts will include possible solutions to these problems in its passage-by-passage exposition. Not all harmonizations prove equally convincing, and many “contradictions” have more than one plausible resolution. But the point is that thoughtful men and women throughout church history, fully aware of these problems, have also recognized that none of them needs to undermine one’s confidence in the Bible’s trustworthiness. Too often modern skeptics make it sound as if we know something today that our predecessors did not that now makes belief in the historical reliability of Scripture untenable. That claim is simply false.
In fact, what has changed are many scholars’ attitudes toward harmonization. As noted above (p. 28), classical historians are far more confident about our ability to retrieve historical facts from ancient documents, even when they appear to contain minor contradictions, than many biblical scholars are. An excellent example of this comes from the work of the Canadian historian Paul Merkley. Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River as he returned from Gaul to Italy in 49 B.C. is often put forward as one incontrovertible fact of Roman history that also had historic significance. With that action, Caesar committed himself to civil war and the course of the Roman republic was forever altered; it would become an empire instead. What is often not mentioned is that we do not know for sure the exact date or location of this crossing. Moreover, as with the Gospels, we have four accounts of the event from later historians—Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. Only the first of these four men was born before the mid–first century after Christ. All claim to have relied on one eyewitness source, that of Asnius Pollio, whose works have entirely disappeared. The four accounts vary to approximately the same degree as the Gospels do when they overlap in content. Suetonius even introduces a miracle into his account, claiming that Caesar’s decision was triggered because he saw “an apparition of superhuman size and beauty” that was “sitting on the river bank, playing a reed pipe.” Yet Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon continues to be cited as one of the most well-established historical facts of antiquity. A similar confidence should be transferred to the four Gospels, which remain much closer in time and access to the events they narrate.48
I have elsewhere pointed out how historians of the life of Alexander the Great, as well as students of Josephus who compare his various writings about a given person or event, regularly adopt a cautious form of harmonization of apparently discrepant details. Just because some harmonizations prove implausible does not mean the entire method should be discarded. For example, it is unlikely that the solution to the Synoptics’ varying locations of Jesus healing the blind men near Jericho (as Jesus was “leaving” the city—Mark 10:46; Matt. 20:29—or as he was “approaching” the city—Luke 18:35) is resolved by postulating two separate Jerichos, one the Old Testament site that lay in ruins, and the other the New Testament town, as has sometimes been suggested. No first-century listener would assume that an uninhabited town from centuries past would be in view when a narrator spoke simply of “Jericho.” The Greek expression translated “approaching” may simply mean “being in the vicinity of.”49 On the other hand, only Matthew speaks of Jesus healing two blind men in this narrative (Matt. 20:30–34). But neither Mark nor Luke claims that there was only one person present, so it is natural to imagine that these two Gospel writers, or the oral tradition they inherited, had simply streamlined the account and spoken of the one who most directly interacted with Jesus and whose name was preserved—Barti-maeus. This kind of “additive” harmonization is common in scholarly studies of other ancient characters.50
But what of the much larger differences between the Synoptics and John? Again I will have to refer the reader to my much fuller discussion of this matter in an entire book on the topic.51 But we can make a few broad generalizations here. First, at the risk of stating the obvious, one of the reasons John seems so different is because he is not directly dependent on one or more of the Synoptics in the same way that Luke and Matthew depend on Mark. Had the four Evangelists all written entirely independently of each other, there might have been as much diversity in selection of detail among the Synoptics as there now is between the Synoptics and John. Even though he uses hyperbole, John’s closing comment that “Jesus did many other things as well,” so that “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written,” surely applies to all major, complex, and influential figures of history. If we did not have three so similar Gospels, the differences between John and any one of them would not stand out so starkly.
Second, and closely related to this point, we must remember how much John and the Synoptics have in common and not focus merely on the differences. A partial list would include
1. the portrait of John the Baptist as fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 and the forerunner of the Messiah;
2. the contrast between John’s baptism with water and the Messiah’s coming baptism with the Spirit;
3. the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus as testified by the Baptist;
4. the feeding of the five thousand;
5. the walking on the water;
6. the command to a paralytic to “take up your bed and walk”;
7. the healing of a Gentile official’s son at a distance;
8. miraculous healings that break the Sabbath laws against working on that day;
9. Jesus’ refusing to work miracles merely to satisfy his opponents;
10. failed attempts to arrest Jesus prematurely;
11. Jesus’ friendship with reflective Mary and bustling Martha;
12. Jesus’ insistence on the need for new, spiritual birth;
13. the promise of an abundant harvest for spiritual farmers;
14. the rejection of a prophet in his homeland;
15. judgment by works for unbelievers;
16. the Father revealing the Son and no one fully knowing the Father but the Son;
17. Jesus and his disciples as “the light of the world”;
18. Jesus’ teaching functioning in part to harden the hearts of those who have already rejected him, fulfilling Isaiah 6:9–10;
19. Jesus as the good shepherd;
20. true discipleship as servanthood;
21. Jesus resisting temptation to abandon the road to the cross;
22. receiving Jesus as receiving the One who sent him;
23. a disciple as no greater than his master;
24. the promise that the Holy Spirit will tell Jesus’ followers what to say in the future;
25. coming expulsion of believers from Jewish synagogues;
26. the expelled believers’ dispersion around the known world; and
27. the disciples given the authority to forgive or retain the sins of others.
And the list could be lengthened.
Third, the unique circumstances that led to the composition of the Fourth Gospel account for John’s choice to narrate largely different episodes from Christ’s life. Combining the internal and external evidence, it appears that John was written at the end of the first century to the collection of house congregations in and around Ephesus, to combat twin challenges that the church in that community was facing. On the one hand, the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus had gained followers from among the Christians there, promoting, among other things, a “docetism” that accepted Jesus’ deity but denied his humanity. The numerous references throughout John’s Gospel to Jesus’ truly becoming flesh, having emotions, eating and drinking, being subordinate to his Father, and doing nothing but carrying out his Father’s will, which finally included dying an excruciating and fully human death, all undoubtedly are included to combat this theological error. On the other hand, by the end of the first century the separation between church and synagogue was largely complete, and that largely because the Jewish leaders had excommunicated their own people who professed belief in Jesus as Messiah. So a high percentage of the passages unique to John involve Jesus preaching to or disputing with Jewish leaders to justify his actions and claims. Reading these stories would encourage Jewish Christians that they had indeed made the right choice by following Jesus and would also give them evangelistic “ammunition” in dealing with their unsaved Jewish friends and family.53
Fourth, there are numerous fascinating examples of “interlocking” between John and the Synoptics, in which an episode or statement in the Synoptics makes sense only if one has information unique to John, and vice versa. For example, John 3:24 makes passing reference to a time “before John was put in prison,” yet nowhere else in John’s Gospel does any reference to this imprisonment appear. Presumably John was assuming his audience had at least heard of that event, as narrated in Mark 6:14–29 and parallels. Or again, in his account of Jesus’ trials, John almost totally omits Christ’s climactic appearance before the Sanhedrin, presided over by Caiaphas. Yet he makes two passing remarks that show that he knows of that event, when he writes, “Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest” (John 18:24), and “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas . . .” (v. 28). Again, John must be able to assume that his audience knew the story (it appears in all the Synoptics—Mark 14:53–65 and parallels). Meanwhile, John is interested in describing a preliminary hearing before the previous high priest, Caiaphas’s father-in-law, Annas (John 18:13, 19–23).
In other instances, the interlocking works in the reverse direction. Readers of only the Synoptic Gospels might wonder why the Jewish leaders had to send Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Mark 15:1–3 par.). If they had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, why didn’t they just stone him according to their Law? Only John provides the answer: the Jewish leaders under Rome were not permitted to carry out the death penalty in such cases (John 18:31). Similarly, those reading only Matthew, Mark, and Luke might wonder if Jesus’ first disciples actually left their occupations instantly to follow him the very first time he ever set eyes on them. Mark 1:16–20 and parallels could certainly be taken that way, without any additional information. But John 1:35–42 makes clear that several of the apostles first met Jesus while they were followers of John the Baptist. They would have witnessed his baptism, become familiar with his ministry, and then later responded to a more formal call to be one of twelve who literally went on the road with Jesus.54
Finally, we consider a different kind of supposed contradiction— in the Book of Acts. Because the narrative of Luke’s second volume contains a lot of information about Paul’s preaching, it is often alleged that the theological emphases that emerge from his speeches (or sermons) in Acts do not fit well with the major themes of the undisputed letters of Paul (Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, and Philippians). Phillip Vielhauer penned the classic study in the mid–twentieth century making this allegation. He identified four areas in which he believed the Paul of Acts was fundamentally incompatible with the Paul of the epistles. (1) In Acts, Paul is positive toward natural theology or general revelation (the idea that people can come to some knowledge of God and even salvation through looking at the design in creation—see especially his “Mars Hill” speech in Athens [Acts 17:16–33]); in the letters Paul remains entirely negative (see esp. Rom. 1:18–32). (2) In Acts, Paul can still treat the Law positively, as when he cuts his hair as part of a Jewish vow (18:18) or when he circumcises Timothy (Acts 16:3); in the letters Paul stresses that the Law merely points out one’s inability to keep it, while the Jewish rituals and ceremonies belong to a now-past age (see esp. Galatians 3–4). (3) In Acts, the resurrected Jesus forms the centerpiece of the gospel message in virtually every sermon recorded; in the letters, Paul focuses solely on the crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2). (4) In Acts, the hope of Christ’s imminent return has receded; in the letters it remains vibrant (see esp. 1 Thess. 4:15).55
None of these four alleged contradictions, however, fairly summarizes the complex data in either Acts or the epistles. Nothing in Acts suggests someone can actually be saved apart from Christ; even 17:27 speaks merely of people “finding” God in some unspecified sense, and even then Luke employs the unusual optative mood with the verb suggesting that Paul is doubtful that even this can be done. Romans 1:19–20, conversely, states very clearly that people should know that God exists based on creation. As for Paul’s attitude to the Law, Acts can portray him as the great champion of grace alone (Acts 13:39), and the epistles can show Paul keeping the Law to try to win Jews to Christ (1 Cor. 9:20). The issue in both Acts and the epistles is whether a certain law is put forward as necessary for salvation. That Paul will resist to the hilt.
Turning to the question about the heart of the gospel, Acts 20:28 highlights Christ’s blood atonement, while 1Corinthians 15 teaches extensively on the resurrection. Clearly it is a matter of emphasis, not of contradiction, as to which writings stress the one aspect of Christ’s work over against the other. Finally, Paul’s epistles disclose that he recognizes he may not live to see Christ’s return (e.g., Phil. 1:19–26), while Acts portrays Paul preaching that his day is the decisive turning point in the ages that will usher in God’s judgment (Acts 17:31). David Wenham has ably surveyed these and related issues and concludes that the differences between Acts and Paul’s letters are substantial enough to prove that Paul didn’t write Acts! But the differences hardly demonstrate a fundamental tension between Paul and Luke. Each writer had his own reasons for emphasizing complementary portions of Paul’s ministry.56
In the previous major section of this chapter, I responded to numerous arguments against the reliability of the apparently historical portions of the New Testament. It is time now to turn to additional, positive evidence for its reliability. Two of these pieces of evidence form a natural pair. On the one hand, there are numerous “hard sayings” of Jesus in the Gospels that his first followers would not likely have invented. One example of a hard saying is that which makes a very stringent demand on disciples