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How Historically Reliable is the New Testament? Part Two

Education 10 Feb, 2021 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

For Christians, the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is sacred. I do not believe, however, that enough Christians are aware of the current debate among New Testament scholars concerning the historical reliability of the New Testament. It is an important and consequential discussion as it concerns the credibility of a main sacred text around which millions organize their lives and anchor their hopes.

This is the second of a three part series.

Bart Erhman, and by extension, others in this camp, spend much time detailing what they regard as discrepancies in in the resurrection narrative. Read horizontally, one soon sees these differences- such as who goes to the tomb, whether the stone is rolled away, if Jesus himself was seen there; did Jesus tell them to go to Galilee or Jerusalem; do the women tell anyone; not to mention, the witnesses being at odds with each other. In Matthew’s account, dead saints come back to life at the death of Christ, rocks split, tombs open, which would have certainly caused a ruckus in Rome, Ehrman explains.

Those opposed to the historical reliability of the New Testament have a particular aversion to the notion of miracles, not to mention the most dramatic of these, the resurrection narrative. Certainly, the New Testament has many miracles happening. Jesus drives out screaming demons, walks on water, feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fish, the Holy Ghost descends in the form of cloven tongues on the waiting disciples, Peter heals, Paul has a dramatic confrontation with a light brighter than the midday sun and hears Christ speaking to him, angels free Peter after prayers are delivered on his behalf and so on.

 To quote Bultman (1958) ‘It is possible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail oneself of modern surgical and medical discoveries and at the same time, to believe in the world of spirits and miracles?’ Commenting on the resurrection he says ‘But what of the resurrection? Is it not a mythical event pure and simple? Obviously, it is not an event of past history’. John Dominiz Crossan, Co-Founder of the Jesus Seminar, says ‘Jesus could not and did not cure those diseases’ and ‘I do not think that anyone, at any time brings people back to life.’ Jarl Fossum, also of the Jesus Seminar, ‘…. or it can be asserted that Jesus did raise from the dead, which would reflect fundamentalist naivete.’ It was the conclusion of the Jesus Seminar that: ‘Whenever scholars detect knowledge of postmortem events in sayings and parables attributed to Jesus, they are inclined to the view that the formulation of such sayings took place after the fact.’ These scholars have not difficulty accepting the death of Jesus. Crossant, for example says, ‘That he was crucified is as sold as anything historical can be’ and Borg (also of the Jesus Seminar), ‘The most certain fact about the historical Jesus, is his execution as a political reaction.’


Summary of the Arguments Against the Historical Reliability of the New Testament

An essay this brief, on such a huge and expanding subject as this, must be very frugal in the selection or material. This summary is barebone. Those who believe that the New Testament is not a historically reliable document ground their thinking in the belief that these documents were written principally to instruct, exhort and propagandize, and were less concerned to produce accurate data. They are too marred by inconsistences and contradictions in their accounts of main events, too anxious to record superhuman feats and too dependent on the oral tradition as the source of their data, to meet the requirements of historical reliability. These works, to paraphrase Ehrman, were moving targets evolving to accommodate the theology of the writers, who adjusted, augmented, or even invented realities to provide cohesiveness to their narratives.

For Ehrman, Jesus was essentially an apocalypticist who though the end of the world was imminent. This sense of apocalypticism was shaped by the political history of the Israelites which had seen some eight hundred years of periodic war and near-permanent foreign domination. The Jewish sect, he concludes, arose out of the social, political, and religious crisis of the times, as modes of resistance. Apocalypticism, formed around the understanding of God’s covenant to protect Israel, but was punished for their sins, tried make sense of the oppression of the people of God. “Mark 8: 38 ‘…. Truly I tell you, there are some standing hers who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God has come in power.’ ‘And in those days, the sun will grow dark, powers in the heavens shall be shaken, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory- truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all things take place’ (Matthew 24: 29-31).

For these scholars, these works, beautiful and useful as they are, lack the requirements of historical reliability- they were not meant to perform this function. Using the tools provided by the various criticisms, they argue that these works are not to be taken as credible history. Form-criticism, which looks at the shape in which information existed before they were compiled into coherent documents, leads to the conclusion of the orality of the sources used, and thus subjected to the challenges of recollection and veracity of accounts. Source criticism looks at the sources from which authors took their information and here these thinkers have much to say. Redaction criticism considers the editorial work of the authors of the Bible, how they linked materials from various sources, etcetera. Historical criticism investigates the origins of texts to understand the world behind them, the goal of which is to discover the original, primitive meaning of the text in its literal sense and to establish a reconstruction of the historical situation of the author and recipients of the text. Textual criticism looks at manuscript history and literary criticism analysis a text using the craft of the prose and poetry writer. Using these various tools, these writers reached their conclusions.


A Brief Response to the Doubters

The acknowledgement of differences in the accounts and manner of the gospel writers is nothing new, except, maybe, the evangelical approach and tone of the current crop of leaders in this area. Julius Africanus of the first century did, so did Origen of the early third century, etcetera. As early as the first century, Chrysostom argued that if the gospels agreed in every detail, the authors would be accused of collusion. He advised that if the differences were in terms of time, place and specific words, this would not discredit the major matters in them (Chrysostom died 407 AD). Esteemed historian Josephus, on many occasions, offered different accounts of his stories.

In a very recent work entitled, Why are there differences in the Gospels? What can we Learn from Ancient Biography? Licona (2017), reasserts the fact that the majority of New Testament scholars now hold that most, if not all of the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography and that this genre permitted some flexibility in the way in which historical events were narrated. In this book, he examines the biographical nature of accounts of major historical figures like Plutarch and says that, applied to the Gospels, the biographical nature of these accounts goes a far way to explaining differences among them.

Licona is on target when he says that hasty dismissals of the Gospels as reliable accounts are misguided. He invites readers to approach them considering their biographical genre and, in that way, to gain a clearer understanding of why they differ. The writers of ancient biographies emphasized cohesion of narrative, and in the writing culture of the time, allowed the biographer to show the essential character and personality of the main character, by utilizing sayings and speeches, etcetera.

I present the final piece on this subject in the next article.

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