Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Credibility of the Four Canonical Gospels

Are our four Gospel writers – Matthew Mark, Luke and John – credible? Not according to one atheist:

• The authors show little to no regard for historicity, their main focus being theology. You do realize that even the best historians of the day "made things up" to fit the narrative they were writing, put words in the mouths of their characters, etc? You treat the Gospels as if they are somehow separate from the era they were written, and make use of something approaching modern historical methods. This would be a mistake on your part.

On the contrary, there a numerous reasons to regard their Gospels as highly credible! In order to build this case, I’ll use the categories used by professional historians to establish credibility.

If the Gospels are credible, they should accurately reflect the language of Jesus as an early 1st century Jew living in Israel. And this is exactly what we find. The Jesus of the Gospels didn’t use Greek expressions but Aramaisms, reflecting the common usage of His day: “Son of Man,” “Abba.” Jesus’ dialogues also reflect the way that the Rabbis of His time spoke. He often spoke in Hebrew parallelisms, unlike the early church. Also, His understanding of the Old Testament was uncannily accurate and penetrating. Consequently, E. P. Sanders wrote,

• Jewish scholars do not find any substantial points of disagreement between Jesus & his contemporaries.

DISSIMILARITY. If Jesus’ teachings and actions don’t reflect the interests and the thinking of the early church and those who wrote the Gospels, then it is likely that the Gospel accounts weren’t invented but represent genuine history.

1. JESUS’ PARABLES. They do not reflect the writings of the Church Fathers. They are difficult to understand, humbling, and hard to apply. Sometimes, they are even humanly offensive. They are not soft-and-fuzzy. They do not warm the heart. They are not designed to add numbers to the church or to win the hearts of the leadership. If anything, they achieve the very opposite. There is no reason why anyone would want to invent these parables, even if they could.

2. JESUS’ PROPHETIC TEACHINGS. They often represented an embarrassment and a paradox for the early church. They were also seemingly seditious – Jerusalem would be destroyed. They also contained a creative tension, contrary to the way that everyone else taught. His Kingdom was already here, but it really was yet to come.

3. JESUS’ DIFFICULT SAYINGS. “Turn the other cheek,” “Cut off your hand,” “Pluck out your eye,” “Give to anyone who asks.” At first glance, the common person would think these sayings ignorant and undoable. Therefore, it wouldn’t suit the interests of the early church to invent such sayings.

These sayings were also impossible to follow and highly discouraging: “Sell all you have,” “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” “Don’t do your good deeds before mean to be seen by them.”

Some of Jesus’ saying seemed to be self-disparaging – not the type of message that the early church would want to convey, if they were trying to win followers: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” “If there be any other way, take this cup [crucifixion] from Me,” “Not even the Son of man knows.”

The Crucifixion itself represented the greatest embarrassment. It was a shameful, humiliating death. Why would anyone want to follow a crucified criminal! Of course, the Gospels redeemed this portrait with a Resurrection. But a resurrection could easily be disproved, especially one witnessed by thousands over a 40 days period.

4. JESUS’ RADICAL ASSOCIATIONS: While His followers demonstrated the predictable respect for money, status, and power, Jesus eschewed such associations in favor of society’s outcasts. This often represented an embarrassment to His disciples.

5. JESUS’ DISCIPLES. They are consistently portrayed in the Gospel accounts as sinners who consistently fail to understand Jesus’ message. Such disparaging portraits wouldn’t have reflected the interests of the early church in presenting the Gospel message as believable or appealing. Instead, the normal human tendency would have been to present the disciples as role models who would inspire others to follow.

Besides this, there is credible historic testimony that almost all these disciples died the death of martyrs, refusing to recant their testimony, even when such recantation would have saved their lives.

. The Gospel accounts show an uncanny agreement with the archeological evidence:

1. Archeologist John McRay: “One prominent archeologist carefully examined Luke’s references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 Islands w/o finding a single mistake.” (Lee Strobel, Case For Christ)

2. NT Scholar F.F.Bruce: “A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where means of testing aren’t available. Accuracy is a habit of mind…Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.”

3. McRay: “It [the Pool of Bethesda] lies maybe 40 feet below ground – and sure enough, there are five porticoes…exactly as John had described. And you have other discoveries – the Pool of Siloam from John 9:7, Jacob’s Well from John 4:12, the probable location of the Stone Pavement near the Jaffa gate where Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate in John 19:13, even Pilate’s own identity – all of which have lent credibility to John’s Gospel.”

4. McRay: “Archeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible. On the contrary, as we’ve seen, there have been many opinions of skeptical scholars that have become codified into ‘fact’ over the years, but that archeology has shown to be wrong.”

5. NT Scholar Craig Blomberg: “Whether by giving the Gospels the benefit of the doubt which all narratives of purportedly historical events merit or by approaching them with initial suspicion in which every detail must satisfy the criteria of authenticity, the verdict should remain the same. The Gospels may be accepted as trustworthy accounts of what Jesus did and said.” (“The Historical Reliability of the Gospels”)

Credibility is further established by the number of witnesses testifying to the same facts. Not only do the four Gospels testify to the same Jesus and the same facts, but the rest of the NT agrees. Among these testimonies were the testimonies of ardent disbelievers who later came to believe – Paul, James and Jude – even after the “debacle” of the Crucifixion.

In addition to these testimonies, all of the Church Fathers are in agreement. Even the Gnostic philosophers had formed their own canons of scripture from NT books instead of their own Gnostic gospels! While we have no evidence that any of them ever wrote a commentary on a Gnostic gospel, they did write commentaries on at least one Gospel, the Gospel of John, although from a very different point of view. All of this tends to validate the credibility of our four Gospels. Even the agnostic professor of religion, Bart Ehrman, reluctantly admits,

• The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus…are the four Gospels of the NT…This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the NT and in its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity…it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars. (“Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code,” p. 102)

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