In my last post I did a short book review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I mentioned that what I liked best about the book was it was a short introduction of some of the best believing Christian scholars.
In this post, I am going to try to attempt to summarize the believing Christian scholar point of view as Strobel lays it out. For this post, I’m just going to summarize the point of view laid out in the book, not comment on it. (Note: I split this post into two parts. This part will deal with the historicity of scripture internally. The next will deal with some outside evidences or issues. The split up is a bit artificial, I admit.)
For this post, I will not be in any way critical of the point of view being expressed, but rather just to try express it in its own words.
Authorship of the Synoptic Gospels
The authors of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were attributed to the most unlikely of authors: two non-apostles (Luke and Mark) and a hated tax collector (Matthew.) Later legendary material was always attributed to the most well known figures, Peter, Mary, James, etc. Further, the synoptic Gospels have no competitors for authorship. As far back Papias in A.D. 125 we find the authors specifically named as Matthew and Mark. The best explanation for this is that they probably were written by the very people they are attributed to. (p. 22-24)
What Does “Q” Tell Us About Jesus?
There is a hypothesis that the Gospels all borrowed for even earlier material. This hypothesized source document is called “Quelle” which means “source,” or “Q” for short. Some scholars have culled out of the Gospels the portions they believe existed in Q. But even in this case we still find strong claims about Jesus being made, such as “that he was wisdom personified and that he was the one by whom God will judge all humanity, whether they confess him or disavow him.” Q, despite being only sayings or quotes, still implies Jesus was a miracle worker. (p. 26-27)
The Synoptic Gospels Claim Godhood for Jesus
One common argument made is that the Gospel of John, which clearly declares the Godhood of Jesus, is actually a later book based on later doctrinal developments reading those developments back into earlier events. However, the synoptic Gospels actually affirm the Godhood of Jesus as well, though in more subtle ways. For example, In Matt 14:22–33 and Mark 6:45–52 you have Jesus walking on water and saying (in the original Greek), “Fear not, it is I am” with “I am” being the same Greek word as was used in the more famous John 8:58 where Jesus takes upon Himself the divine name as in Exodus 3:14. Jesus also referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” in allusion to the divine figure in Daniel 7:13–14. Further, Jesus continually claims to forgive sins which is a power that Jews reserved for God alone. He also claims that “whoever acknowledges me, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven” implying He has final judgment authority. Therefore, John is more clear but not different in kind compared to the synoptics. (p. 29-30)
Consider also that Jesus called twelve apostles as his followers to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. But then who does Jesus represent in this analogy? (p. 134) And if Jesus really was just a normal Jewish Rabbi that only later was built into a god by the later Church, then why exactly did the Jewish authorities and even the Romans feel the need to kill him? Jesus even performed his miracles claiming they were signs that he could forgive others of their sins or setup God’s kingdom, as only God was believed to be able to do. (p. 135) The synoptic Gospels present the very same divine Jesus the Gospel of John does (p. 138) but more subtly so as to slowly allow this fact to dawn on them. Had Jesus merely erupted on the scene claiming He was God, it would have been such a drastic departure from what the Jews were used to that it would have been misunderstood. (p. 133)
The Liberal Dating of the New Testament
Even liberal scholars date Mark to the 70s, Matthew and Luke to the 80s and John to the 90s. While much is made of these late dates, decades from the life of Jesus, these are in fact still the dates closest to the original events of any ancient history. By comparison the earliest histories of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death. Yet they are still considered to be generally trustworthy. Most legendary material about Alexander developed five centuries after his death, not within a few decades. (p. 32-33) A.N. Sherwin-White of Oxford did a study of the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world and concluded that not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth. (p. 264)
Reliability of the Manuscripts
Even the dating of the existing manuscripts is remarkably close to the originals compared to any thing else in ancient history. We have copies within a couple of generations from the originals, a few that date back to early second century, whereas other ancient texts that we consider reliable are five to ten centuries later. Plus we have multiple translations of the same material for comparison purposes. (p. 59) In addition, we have more than five thousand Greek manuscripts for comparison purposes on portions or all of the New Testament. To give a real life counter example, Tacitus the Roman historian’s first six books exist in only one manuscript today, and it was copied in A.D. 850, about seven centuries after Tacitus. The best runner up is actually Homer’s Iliad which has fewer than 650 manuscripts today with the earliest being eight or nine centuries off from the original. (p. 60-62)
Interestingly, the most disputed of the Gospel’s, John, has some of the earliest manuscripts. One manuscript that contains two thirds of John dates to A.D. 200. In another manuscript, a fragment of John can even be dated to between A.D. 100 and 150 and was found no where near where John would have composed it, thus requiring John to be dated even earlier than this. Since liberal scholars previously claimed John was a fourth century creation, this has forced significant rethinking within liberal scholarly circles. (p. 61-62)
The Conservative Dating of the New Testament
Of course there is a strong case to be made that the liberal dating of the material is too late. The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome waiting trial. We do not find out how he dies, presumably because the story was written before he died. So Acts can’t be dated later than A.D. 62. Acts is the second of a two part work, so we can now place the book of Luke before that time. Mark is believed to be before Luke by most scholars, so it’s even earlier. If you assume a year for each, you end up with Mark being written by A.D. 60 or possibly earlier. Assuming Jesus died in A.D. 30 or 33 we have a maximum of 30 years gap. Probably much less.
Paul and the Early Creeds
Of course the Gospels aren’t even the earliest materials about Jesus. Paul’s letters are believed to come even before that. Paul incorporated some of the earliest creeds and confessions of faith into his epistles. (p. 229-230 for discussion on how it was determined it was a creed.) This includes Philippians 2:6–11, Colossians 1:15–20, and 1 Corinthians 15:3–7. So the material in each of these creeds is even earlier than the very early epistles of Paul themselves. These creeds include statements about Jesus including that he “thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, that by Him all things were created, that he was buried and rose from the dead, that he was seen of Cephas (Peter) and the twelve and then by “above five hundred” and finally by his own brother (and skeptic) James. In 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 in particular, Paul specifies that this was the beliefs he received upon his conversion. If we assume the earliest date for the crucifixion as A.D. 30, then Paul’s conversion would be placed at about A.D. 32. His first meeting with the Apostles at Jerusalem can then be placed at A.D. 35. So we can place the dating of the 1 Corinthians 15 material as already established and formulated doctrines of the early Church to within 5 years of the crucifixion – far too fast to be Legendary additions of any sort.
Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, we do find several important corroborations about the life of Jesus such as “that Jesus was a descendant of David, that He was the Messiah, that he was betrayed, that he was tried, crucified for our sins, and buried, and that he rose again on the third day and was seen by many people – including James, the brother of Jesus who hadn’t believed in him…” (p. 88) Paul shows no interest or corroboration for the parables and teachings of Jesus (as Liberal Theologians now sometimes claim was the real historical teachings of Jesus) but instead is primarily interested in the already existent beliefs about Jesus (by A.D. 35) that Jesus was resurrected and atoned for our sins. Paul’s letters also strongly corroborate the deity of Jesus, and this from the strictest of monotheistic Jews. (p. 88)
Therefore, we have a substantial amount of evidence that within 20 years of the death of Jesus, probably much sooner, that there was already a full blown ‘Christology’ proclaiming Jesus as God. (p. 139) How probable is it that this was all conjured up out of thin air within twenty or fewer years after Jesus died when there are still living witnesses of the historical Jesus around to tell people what he really taught and said? (p. 230) Further, it is Paul that delivers these creeds and he does so by affirming that he has investigated the claims of this creed by questioning two of the witnesses mentioned in it (in Gal 1:18–19) as well as being an eye witness of the resurrected Jesus himself. (p. 230-231).
The evidence is strong that the creeds in Paul are early, free from legendary contamination, and unambiguously specific. (p. 233) Therefore, the best possible explanation is that Jesus really did teach that He was God. (p. 140) The Theologically Liberal Jesus who taught good things but never claimed to be God simply did not exist. Instead, we must except that Jesus either had the highest form of megalomania or He really was God. (p. 141)
The Reliability of the Accounts
And even though the synoptic gospels clearly borrow from a single source (possibly Mark itself) this is what we’d expect since Mark was believed to be the same Mark that was close to Peter. The small variances between the synoptics may also be explained as an artifact of any ancient oral culture where committing stories to memory was common, but so were slight variances depending on the teller. (p. 43) Contrary to popular belief, this is not similar to the kids game of “gossip” or “telephone” where you pass a message, but are not allowed to check that you have it right. To make a game similar to what really would have happened, you’d have to allow every third person to check back with the first person out loud and in a clear voice. (p. 44) Since the variances are always in secondary details and not in the substance of the message, this is consistent with oral transmission of the times.
And what reason did these people have to tell their unpopular story? They could only gain criticism, ostracism, and ultimately martyrdom. They had nothing to win financially. (p. 48) And it must be admitted that something caused the Christian religion to take off amongst a group of discouraged and depressed followers of a man that died an ignoble death. (p. 246) And how else do we explain a skeptic like James the brother of Jesus only coming to believe in Jesus after the resurrection? (p. 248)
The Gospels themselves provide proof that the stories told are told accurately because there is a large body of ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus that, even at the time, were not popular. If these were all invented sayings of Jesus then such hard sayings would not be included. Even the opponents of Jesus claim that he was a sorcerer who led Israel astray. So even the counter witnesses are admitting that he performed great miracles.
Claims that variants between accounts undermine the testimony of the Gospels overlook the fact that it’s completely normal to have different accounts of the same historical incident with some contradictions. For example, Hannibal cross the Alps has two narratives with significant incompatibilities, yet no one doubts the basic fact that Hannibal crossed the Alps. (p. 216) The Gospels are the same way. They only differ on small details, not on the key points of faith, such as that Jesus died on the cross, was buried in a tomb, and was resurrected and met many of his disciples.
Even the fact that women are mentioned as the first witnesses confirms strongly that this is a historical record and not a later creation, for women were not considered reliable legal witnesses at the time. So if the story was fiction, women would not have been chosen as the first witnesses of the resurrection. This can only be explained by the fact that the women were, in fact, the first witnesses of the resurrection. (p. 217-218)
Do Variants Pose Danger to Christian Doctrines?
Even admitting to some variants between manuscripts, the variants do not pose any danger to any of the core Christian doctrines. Even if you were to remove the portions that are in question, you still find a Divine Jesus, a Trinity/Godhead doctrine, Salvation through Jesus, etc. In fact, many scholars have claimed that we can reconstruct 99.5% of the original manuscripts. (p.65)
In my next post, I’ll continue the summary of the arguments in The Case for Christ.