Attempts to reinvent Jesus are nothing new. The vines of radical skepticism toward the biblical Christ have been creeping up the walls of the ivory tower for two centuries.1 But only in recent years has such intense cynicism sprouted at the grassroots. And it has spread quickly.
This comes as no surprise. After all, our culture is ripe for conspiracies about Jesus.
The seeds of radical skepticism have been widely sown by mass media for over a decade. From the Jesus Seminar—a fringe group of scholars whose color-coded version of the Gospels repeatedly made headlines in the 1990s—to the recent blockbuster novel and now movie The Da Vinci Code, skeptics of all stripes have used the popular media to promote their demoted versions of Jesus.
Distrust spawned in the media has taken firm root in our postmodern society, where the quest for truth has been replaced by a convenient tolerance for every idea. “That’s just your interpretation!” has become the tired mantra of hurried people who can’t be bothered by a thoughtful evaluation of evidence. It’s simply easier to pretend all interpretations are created equal.
The radical skepticism sown in the media and rooted in postmodernism has been cultivated in an environment of biblical ignorance. As New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes:
Americans generally have an abysmal level of knowledge of the Bible. In this world of mass ignorance, to have headlines proclaim that this or that fact about [Jesus] has been declared untrue by supposedly scientific inquiry has the effect of gospel. There is no basis on which most people can counter these authoritative-sounding statements.2
The media’s assault on the biblical Jesus, postmodernism’s laissez-faire attitude toward truth, and America’s collective ignorance of Scripture have joined to create a new culture of cynicism. In short, society has been conditioned to doubt. To be sure, an open mind is a good thing. But a mind is open only as long as it is closing in on truth. Our hope is that you will approach the evidence in this book with an open mind, whether it’s opened completely or cautiously.
If you are skeptical of the Jesus of the Bible, we hope you’ll discover that a step toward him doesn’t require leaving your brain behind. If you embrace the biblical Christ but think faith isn’t concerned with matters of the mind, we want you to see that belief in the incarnation—God entering the time-space world as a man two millennia ago—compels you to take history seriously. And if you are a Christian already committed to loving God with your heart and mind, we trust your faith will be strengthened and you’ll be equipped to share it more compellingly.
This book is not written for scholars but for laypersons—motivated laypersons. While we have tried to capture the essence of arguments and avoid technical jargon, we realize that the material will stretch many of our readers. For one thing, much of it will be new. What’s more, it will be far-reaching. Since the most probable interpretation of Jesus is grounded in the totality of evidence, it’s essential to see the broad landscape. This may seem a bit much, but as one automotive manufacturer says, “It’s not more than you need. It’s just more than you’re used to.”
We have not endeavored to critique or review the various attempts at reinventing Jesus. Counterfeits are legion, and the list is growing. Rather, our primary objective has been to build a positive argument for the historical validity of Christianity. We contend that a progressive case, built on the following sequence of questions, undermines novel reconstructions of Jesus and underscores the enduring essence of the Christian faith:
• If the first Gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus, how do we know the writers got the story right? We’ll tackle this question in our first section, “I Believe in Yesterday.”
• If the writers got the story right, how do we know the Gospels and other New Testament documents were copied faithfully? Is what we have now what they wrote then? This matter will be addressed in a section titled “Politically Corrupt? The Tainting of Ancient New Testament Texts.”
• If the writers got the story right and the documents were copied faithfully, how do we know the right documents were included in the Bible? How did the church decide which ones to include? Was there a conspiracy to hide competing books? Our third section explores the question: “Did the Early Church Muzzle the Canon?”
• If the writers got the story right, the documents were copied faithfully, and the right documents were included in the Bible, what does this say about earliest belief in Jesus? Is the divinity of Jesus an early tradition or a late superstition? “Simply Divine: The Real Issue at Nicea”—the key section of the book—addresses when Jesus was viewed as more than a man.
• If the writers got the story right, the documents were copied faithfully, the right documents were included in the Bible, and the Bible reveals belief in the divinity of Jesus, how do we know the whole thing wasn’t plagiarized from other religions? Our case culminates with “Stealing Thunder: Did Christianity Rip Off Mythical Gods?”3
Our focus is mainly on the integrity of the New Testament text as it bears witness to historic belief in the divinity of Jesus. As such, our approach is primarily historical rather than theological. Of course, history and theology are inextricably linked. But our starting point is not belief in the Bible as divinely inspired or infallible—or anything similar. We believe that when the tools of the historian are applied to the biblical text, it builds its own case for its unique character. Or as one British scholar said, “We treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book.”
As you make your way through the pages of this book, we invite you to recall the story of Thomas in John 20:24–28. Despite the testimony of the other disciples, Thomas doubted that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. In fact, Thomas insisted, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!” The living Jesus appeared to Thomas eight days later, saying, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Interestingly, Jesus didn’t scold Thomas for his doubt. Rather, he called him to examine the evidence. He invites you to do the same.
The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.—Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, 4
How do we know the Gospel writers got it right? Why was the writing of the Gospels delayed for decades? What happened in the meantime? Isn’t it likely that the Gospel writers (or Evangelists, as they are often called in scholarly circles) simply forgot most of the details about what Jesus said and did by the time they put pen to papyrus? Since all the Gospel writers were obviously people of faith, how do we know their faith didn’t get in the way of accurate historical reporting? Since they were writing to specific communities, how do we know they didn’t radically rework the material to meet the needs of their audiences? These and other questions will be explored in this section.
As a preliminary task, it might be good to begin with some basic definitions, because these terms will be used throughout this section by scholars we are quoting. It’s helpful to get some of the basic terminology down so that you can understand what they are saying.
We begin with the expression Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic refers to those works that take a similar point of view. The synoptics are the Gospels that look at Jesus in approximately the same way. Three Gospels seem to have quite a bit of overlap of material (both in wording and arrangement of narratives); hence they are known as the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s view of Jesus is so different that it has been estimated that 90 percent of the material in John is unique to that Gospel, while less than 10 percent of Mark is unique to his Gospel. Hence, John is not one of the Synoptic Gospels.
When thinking about the Synoptic Gospels, scholars are concerned about source criticism. This has to do especially with the written sources that the Evangelists used when writing their Gospels. “Criticism” in this sense relates to “research,” or critical assessment; it has nothing to do with a critical attitude.
When it comes to source criticism, most scholars consider two starting points for a discussion. First, they are of the opinion that there is a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels. That is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke were not written in total isolation from each other; their authors engaged in literary borrowing. (We might call it plagiarism to some degree, but that is a modern concept. Besides, each Evangelist made his own contribution to his Gospel by selecting, arranging, and editing the material. The scholarly examination of such editing is known as redaction criticism.)
Second, in terms of literary relationship, most scholars hold to Markan priority. The usual formulation of this is that Mark was the first Gospel, and Matthew and Luke independently utilized Mark for their own Gospels. There is, however, a vocal minority of scholars who hold to Matthean priority. The usual formulation of this is that Matthew wrote first, and Luke wrote later but independently of Matthew. Mark then utilized both Matthew and Luke to write his Gospel.
One other point about source criticism needs to be mentioned: those who hold to Markan priority generally hold to the four-source hypothesis. Essentially, this means that Matthew and Luke used four different sources to write their Gospels. (If you’re still with us, hang on just a little longer. We’re almost done with all the fifty-cent words!) These four sources are designated as follows:
• Mark: This, of course, is the Gospel of Mark.
• Q: This is either a written source that no longer exists, or an oral source (i.e., the passing on of the life and especially teachings of Jesus through the spoken word rather than the written text), or a little of both.
• M: This is the material that is unique to Matthew (some scholars think of it as a written source, while others think of it as oral; still others consider the Evangelist as his own source of information, if he was an eyewitness).
• L: This is the material that is unique to Luke (since Luke’s Gospel was definitely not written by an eyewitness [see Luke 1:1–4, where the author mentions that he used sources to author his Gospel], this has to be sources other than the Evangelist himself).
All of this terminology can be quite bewildering, and the issues involved are rather complex. But the basic concepts are relatively simple. As an imperfect illustration, consider modern translations of the Bible. Most Christians do not realize that many modern translations are conscious revisions of the King James Version of 1611. It started in 1885 with the Revised Version. Then, in 1901 the American Standard Version appeared. In 1952, the Revised Standard Version was published. After that, the New American Standard, New Revised Standard, and English Standard Version all came out. All of these modern translations are revisions of the KJV, as their prefaces note.
Now suppose these Bibles did not have prefaces or title pages. Could you tell which ones were earlier translations and which were later? Certainly, most readers would be able to recognize the KJV as the oldest translation. As well, the Revised Version and American Standard Version would be recognized as archaic in their language. But even the Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard would probably stand out because of the “thee’s” and “thou’s”—used in these translations only in prayers to God. And an expert in English would notice other shifts in language usage, helping to pinpoint when each Bible was produced.
Detecting the relationship between these translations is source criticism. Catching all the nuances of the literary relationships between the modern translations requires a great deal of study. But it is obvious that modern translations used many sources.
By pressing the analogy farther, a couple of other points become clear. First, the modern translations do not differ from the KJV only in the mere updating of the language. There are also interpretive differences. The KJV at times interprets the Greek or Hebrew in a way that is ambiguous or misleading to the modern reader. Modern translations try to clarify the wording. At other times, the KJV simply missed the point of the original Greek or Hebrew, and modern translations correct the wording.
Second, there are textual differences. The KJV is based on later manuscripts, while modern translations utilize manuscripts that are many centuries older than those used for the KJV. We will discuss these matters in the next section of this book.
Suffice it to say here that modern translations that are revisions of the KJV do not simply duplicate the wording of the KJV. They alter the wording, correct misleading impressions, and offer a different rendering based on different manuscripts. In short, even though there is literary dependence, it is not wholesale dependence. But the very fact that they begin by revising the KJV shows a great deal of respect for the old translation. However, the differences in interpretation and text also show their own emphases for their own, modern-day readers.
No doubt, by now you see many parallels between the Synoptic Gospels and Bible translations: source criticism, redaction criticism, and literary dependence are all relevant terms to both areas of study. In other words, the basic concepts of scholarly study of the Gospels are not difficult to grasp, even though the terminology may seem foreign to you.
There are many other terms we could discuss, but these should be enough to get you into the discussion without feeling like you’re in a foreign country!
Now, let’s return to the issue in this chapter. There are some skeptics who think that the faith of the early Christians somehow corrupted their memory of Jesus and transformed him into something that he was not. If true, the transformation was carried out in a coherent fashion and caught on throughout the Greco-Roman world with breathtaking speed.
The arguments of skeptics have been amply answered in a vast amount of literature.1 Our objective is simply to focus on a few things relevant to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Since so many of the questions that relate to the historical Jesus are more about what happened after the Gospels were written, we will focus in this book on those issues especially. But here we want to address the primary question: Did the Gospel writers get it right when it came to Jesus?
In this opening chapter, we want to explore the issue of the gospel behind the Gospels. That is, we will address the proclamation of the words and deeds of Jesus before they were written down in the Gospels. This is known as oral tradition. We will also look at the criteria that scholars use to determine what Jesus said—known as the criteria of authenticity. But what we need to keep in our frontal lobes in all this is the question, Were the Gospel writers faithful in recording what Jesus said and did?
The Gospels, by any reckoning, were written some decades after Jesus lived. Several skeptics consider this an embarrassment to the historical roots of the Christian faith and argue that during these decades of silence Christians were fomenting a conspiracy. Earl Doherty boldly claims, “When one looks behind the Gospel curtain, the mosaic of Jesus of Nazareth very quickly disintegrates into component pieces and unrecognizable antecedents.”2 The Jesus Seminar is even more to the point: “The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.”3
At issue is what happened in the decades between the time Jesus lived and the writing of the Gospels. This issue involves two questions: Why was there such a delay in writing the Gospels? And, What happened in the interval between the life of Jesus and the written Gospels?
Many reasons could be given for the delay of the written Gospels, but even thinking about the question this way is perhaps looking at it from the wrong perspective. It might be better to ask, Why were the Gospels written at all? If we think in categories of delay, then this presupposes that the writing of the Gospels was in the minds of these authors from the beginning. However, that is almost certainly not the case. What was paramount in the apostles’ earliest motives was oral proclamation of the gospel. They wanted to disseminate the word as quickly as possible. Starting in Jerusalem, and traveling throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, the good news about Jesus Christ became known. When the Pharisee Paul became a Christian, the gospel then spread rapidly to other regions of the Mediterranean. By the time he got to Thessalonica in the late 40s, the Jews who opposed his message complained to the city council that Paul and Silas had “stirred up trouble throughout the world” (Acts 17:6).
In the book of Acts a common refrain is that the gospel was spreading and the young church was growing rapidly (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31). Paul confirms this in his letters. He commends the Thessalonians for making known the gospel he preached to them (1 Thess. 1:8–10) and tells the Romans that their faith “is proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). We also see strong evidence of the spread of the gospel in other letters (e.g., James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; Jude 3).
In other words, the apostles and leaders of the young church were preoccupied with broadcasting the gospel orally. There was no need to think about a written gospel at this time. The remarkable speed with which the good news of Jesus Christ became known throughout the Roman Empire in the first few years of the church’s existence is testimony to the apostles’ success in the task of oral proclamation.
Scholars often point to two catalysts that prompted the writing of the Gospels. First, the apostles started to die off. And second, the Lord’s return was evidently not going to happen within the first few decades of the church’s existence. These two factors are often suggested as the main reasons why the Gospels began to be written.
If the Gospels were written because the apostles were dying off, we would expect the Gospels to be written to their communities. However, at least two of the four Gospels (Mark and Luke), and probably three (John), were written to Gentile Christians, and the principal apostle to the Gentiles was Paul, not one of the original Twelve—and Paul was never in a position to write a Gospel in the first place because he did not know Jesus in his earthly existence.4 And if the Gospels were written before the Jewish War (A.D. 66–70)—a possibility we will consider next—then thoughts about the delay of the Lord’s return might not have been as prominent. In reality, each one of the Gospels has its own reasons for being written when it was written and to whom. But the fundamental point that the oral proclamation of the gospel was of primary concern to the leaders of the church in the first few decades is vital to remember.
What kind of delay are we actually talking about? How long did it take for the four Gospels to be written? Most scholars regard Mark as the first Gospel, written no later than the 60s. If Jesus died in A.D. 30 or 33 (there is some debate between these two dates), then the first Gospel would have been written within four decades of the death of Jesus.
If Mark was written this late, there still would have been plenty of eyewitnesses still living to confirm the truth of what he wrote. But there is significant evidence to suggest that he wrote earlier than this. The dating of the New Testament books can be rather involved. Without trying to make the matter too simplistic, we wish to highlight just a few points.
First, if Luke used Mark to write his Gospel (as most scholars believe), then Mark, of course, must have been written prior to Luke’s Gospel.
Second, Luke is in reality the first volume of a two-volume work; Acts is the second volume. And there is increasing evidence that Acts was written in the early 60s, prior to Paul’s trial in Rome. (After all, the book begins with a bang but ends with a whimper—dragging on for chapter after chapter in anticipation of the trial that never comes. But if Acts is meant, in part, as some sort of “trial brief,” then the reason it doesn’t get to the trial makes sense.)5
Third, the Olivet discourse, in which Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, is found in Mark 13. Many scholars simply deny the possibility of true prophecy in the Bible and hence demand a date after A.D. 70 for Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke). But J. A. T. Robinson, in Redating the New Testament, made the interesting case that the prophecy in Mark 13 actually argues for a date prior to A.D. 66. He points out that the specifics of the Olivet discourse do not altogether match what we know of the Jewish War: “‘The abomination of desolation’ cannot itself refer to the destruction of the sanctuary in August 70 or to its desecration by Titus’ soldiers in sacrificing to their standards. [Furthermore,] by that time it was far too late for anyone in Judaea to take to the hills, which had been in enemy hands since the end of 67.”6 Yet in Mark 13:14, Jesus tells his disciples, “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” Robinson concludes, “I fail to see any motive for preserving, let alone inventing, prophecies long after the dust had settled in Judaea, unless it be to present Jesus as prognosticator of uncanny accuracy (in which case the evangelists have defeated the exercise by including palpably unfulfilled predictions).”7
Robinson is correct that the prophecy in Mark 13 was not fulfilled exactly as it was recorded. But whether the Jewish War is all that was envisioned in the prophecy is a different matter. Nevertheless, his fundamental point is solid, increasing the likelihood that Mark was written prior to A.D. 70.
What all this means for Matthew and Luke is simply that they too were most likely written prior to A.D. 70. Again, the two basic reasons to argue this are that (1) Luke is the first volume of Luke-Acts and Acts was most likely written in the early 60s; and (2) the argument that the Gospels must be written after A.D. 70 because predictive prophecy is impossible backfires in the Olivet discourse (recorded in all three synoptic Gospels) since the prophecy was not completely fulfilled at that time.8
A fundamental disagreement in scholarly circles over the life of Jesus concerns the role that oral tradition played. On the one hand, skeptics such as Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar argue implicitly that the oral tradition behind the Gospels was isolated and faulty to the extreme:
Scholars of the gospels are faced with a similar problem: Much of the lore recorded in the gospels and elsewhere in the Bible is folklore, which means that it is wrapped in memories that have been edited, deleted, augmented, and combined many times over many years.9
As we noted above, the interval between Jesus and the written Gospels was not dormant. The apostles and other eyewitnesses were proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ wherever they went. This, of course, would have happened both in public settings and in private meetings. People hungry to know about the Lord would inquire of the apostles. The stories about Jesus and the sayings of Jesus would have been repeated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times by dozens of eyewitnesses before the first Gospel was ever penned.
The period of oral proclamation involves some implications for the accuracy of the written Gospels. If the earliest proclamation about Jesus was altered in later years, then surely first-generation Christians would know about the changes and would object to them! It would not even take outsiders to object to the “new and improved Christianity,” since those who were already believers would have serious problems with the differences in the content of their belief. Not only this, but the rapid spread of the gospel message meant that there were no longer controls on the content. That is, once the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem, the apostles were no longer in a position to alter it without notice. And it did this on day one of the formation of the church—the Day of Pentecost—for Peter proclaimed the message to Jews who had traveled from as far away as Rome (Acts 2:9–11)! So, if there was some sort of conspiracy—or a faith that “overpowered their memories,” as the Jesus Seminar argues—then it had to have been formulated before the Day of Pentecost.
The problem with this hypothesis is twofold. First, it is hardly conceivable that the apostles could have forgotten so much about the “real” Jesus in a matter of fifty days after his crucifixion and allowed their faith in him to overpower their memories of him. Second, they were not the only witnesses to Jesus Christ. Hundreds of other followers of Jesus knew him well, had seen his miracles, and had heard his messages. What Jesus taught and what Jesus did were not things done in secret. This hypothesis is so full of holes that no scholar holds to it.
This leaves us with only two alternatives: either the gospel message changed dramatically over several years, or it remained stable over several years—until the time it was written down. The first alternative, as we noticed above, is improbable in the extreme. British scholar, Vincent Taylor, noted this long ago. His insights are still worth quoting today. In discussing form criticism (the view that the Gospels were patchwork efforts that invented situations in which to place stories about Jesus10), he does not mince words:
It is on this question of eyewitnesses that Form-Criticism presents a very vulnerable front. If the Form-Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection. As Bultmann sees it, the primitive community exists in vacuo [in isolation], cut off from its founders by the walls of an inexplicable ignorance. Like Robinson Crusoe it must do the best it can. Unable to turn to any one for information, it must invent situations for the words of Jesus, and put into His lips sayings which personal memory cannot check. All this is absurd. . . . However disturbing to the smooth working of theories the influence of eyewitnesses on the formation of the tradition cannot possibly be ignored. The one hundred and twenty at Pentecost did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information. . . . But when all qualifications have been made, the presence of personal testimony is an element in the formative process which it is folly to ignore.11
Taylor wrote these words in 1933. Sixty years later, the Jesus Seminar proclaimed that faith in Jesus overpowered the apostles’ memories and that the real Jesus had been forgotten—the very points that Taylor debunked! And the fact is, Taylor’s argument has been repeated by other scholars for decades. To be sure, they have added other arguments as well, but his fundamental tenets have not been answered.
We are left with one alternative: the proclamation of the gospel had a stable core that was reproduced in public and private settings and confirmed by eyewitnesses. We now need to examine how faithfully an “oral culture” would have been able to remember Jesus Christ, which is the subject of the next chapter.