(This lecture was given at the Greer-Heard Forum last Saturday at New Orleans Baptist Seminary after the presentations the previous day by Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans)
I listened to my scholarly colleagues yesterday give us a variety of answers as to whether the Gospels are historically reliable when it comes to their portraits of Jesus, debate differences in the accounts and their significance, talk about how we derive historically responsible conclusions about Jesus, and speak with passion and conviction about their subject matter, and one might add, also some exasperation. They were both exasperated with flat, insipid, overly literalistic fundamentalistic readings of the four canonical Gospels served up by the right Rev. Billy Bob Proverb all too regularly on a cable network near you. And I understand and share that exasperation. But at the end of the day I was also frustrated with what I heard from both Bart and Craig yesterday to some degree, and I will now explain why.
We are all products of our education, and in case of myself and indeed all of us, we were all trained to analyze the Gospels in detail using source, and form, and redaction criticism. Now these methods have their pluses and minuses. They can be useful in getting at certain aspects of things about the historical Jesus, but unfortunately these methods cannot help us very much to deal with the canonical Gospels if we seek to treat them as they were intended to be treated by their original inspired authors. More on that in a minute.
These Gospel authors were not operating with the canons of modern secular historiography which tends to have an anti-supernatural bias with its practitioners regularly muttering astoundingly dogmatic things like “that didn’t happen because those kind of things don’t happen. People don’t rise from the dead.” I have to say that that sort of dogmatic statement puts the dog back in dogmatic just as much as the dogmatic statements of some fundamentalist TV preachers. It is especially proper to ask persons who are dogmatic in modern secular anti-supernaturalist ways, just as it is proper to ask persons who are dogmatic in others ways— ‘How do you know things like that don’t happen?’ And if the answer is ‘I have never seen such a thing happen’ then we realize we are dealing with persons who needs to get out more, see more of the world of human experience, but have the arrogance to assume that his or her private, individual experience exhausts what is possible when it comes to the limits of historical reality. This person is in fact saying “talk to the hand with your miracle reports, the face is not listening.” What is even worse is when such scholars then take the next step of suggesting that if you don’t have these sorts of presuppositions you are not a critical scholar, and are not doing proper historical analysis of the Gospels.
Now I must admit that in many ways this anti-supernatural philosophical presupposition is the one that undergirds much of modern historiography, and that is what it is– a philosophical presupposition, an a priori that miracles don’t happen. It is of course certainly not based on an exhaustive study of empirical reality, or even a representative study of empirical reality, because indeed there have been millions of reports and testimonies to miracles even in modernity with verifiable empirical data, and indeed there are some being given even as we speak. But the ‘modern’ historian with the anti-supernatural bias, just as dogmatically as the fundamentalist preacher in another way wants to say— “don’t confuse me with the facts, don’t give me all these stories, however credible and however verifiable even by medical records before and after…… I know what I know. Those things just don’t happen.” Is such a person open and fair minded to the complexities and varieties of human experience or human history? I am afraid not.
Because the answer is no, when in fact there is plenty of contrary evidence, one has to get louder and more vociferous on insisting that this is the only proper way to analyze reality or history. Like the old preacher who revealingly wrote in his sermon notes at one point “not actually sure about this point, pound the pulpit harder and speak louder” such a person would like certain doubts to go away, doubts that he or she might be wrong, but alas, he can’t exorcise the demon of those doubts so this person just becomes more strident in their insistence that they are right, and others must be wrong. One wonders whether they are more trying to convince themselves or others, at the end of the day.
Me personally I don’t believe in ‘justification by doubt’. I don’t believe that philosophical skepticism is the same thing as critical thinking, and I also don’t think that the sort of historiography that is undergirded by such a prioris can help us very much with the question are the Gospels reliable, truthful witnesses when it comes to the historical Jesus. In fact, if you want to actually get at the truth of something, you have to enter into dialogue with that source giving it the benefit of the doubt, allowing it to have its say, and while one doesn’t put one’s critically thinking cap aside, if you do not approach the material with an open mind and a willingness to learn from it, you won’t get at the truth of the matter, not even the historical truth of the matter. You can’t possibly analyze the actual nature of a raging fire, by pouring cold water on it, and then picking over the ashes and charcoal thereafter.
What then are the Gospels, and how should they be analyzed, and are they historically reliable when it comes to the historical Jesus, whether in general or in detail? The Gospels are written according to the ancient conventions of biographical and historical writing. They are like Plutarch’s Lives, not like a modern biography of JFK or a modern historiographical monograph on WWII. It is not only unfair to analyze ancient documents using modern conventions as one’s guide, it may in fact lead to more confusion than clarity, like the example of the man who came up with six denials of Christ by Peter because some accounts say the cock crowed once and some say twice. But none of the canonical Gospels say that Peter denied Christ six times, so there must be something terribly wrong with a kind of synthetic reading of the Gospel that makes them say something that none of them say.
When a modern person puts those four accounts into their mental cusinarts with no understanding of ancient genre of literature, and based entirely on a contextless reading of the Gospels, if by context we mean the ancient contexts—- stuff happens. Bad stuff. The evidence is distorted not clarified. Now the irony is that this happens just as assuredly with the modern secular historian who fails to take the lead from the ancient genre of the documents, but rather prefers the modern discipline of form or source criticism, just as assuredly it takes place, when Billy Bob Proverb mushes all these things into his red letter brain.
I want to suggest as clearly as I can that the four canonical Gospels are portraits of Jesus, not snapshots, they’re more like Monets four paintings of the front of Rouen Cathedral than they are like four black and white photos of Ted Williams taken at various angles in Fenway on the same day by four different photographers, and if one fails to analyze the document according to the type or kind of information it is trying to give you—- you’ve made a category mistake, a huge one.
Now the art historian examining those four Monet paintings knows perfectly well that he is looking at the real historical Rouen cathedral, but through the interpretive lens of impressionistic approaches to painting, which were concerned with light and the difference light makes in the way things appear to us. Impressionism reminds us that in fact reality is not in the eye of the beholder, for the eye can be deceived, any more than meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, Virginia there are definitely meanings in those texts, but it is also true that we are active readers of the texts. When you go to the Louvre or elsewhere and see these four paintings of Rouen cathedral, you see that in one the cathedral almost looks pink, in another almost yellow, in another almost white, and after the light was gone, in another gray. And yet clearly these are four recognizably representational paintings of that cathedral, which anyone who had ever seen the cathedral or even seen a bad picture of the cathedral would realize.
Now the art historian is not the same as a paint historian. A paint historian will get up next to the picture and analyze the details of the painting from up close— did he use tempura or oil, did he do it on a canvas or a piece of papyrus, why in this picture do we have a glob of purple paint right on the cathedral door which seems to complete contradict the glob of brown paint at this tiny spot on the other three paintings? It would be a mistake to think that the paint historian can get at the meaning or significance or historical character of the paintings by examining them only from two inches away. You lose all perspective, indeed you can’t see the representation of the cathedral at all. All you see is particular globs of paint, and you can complain all you want, that this painting can’t be accurate because it uses the wrong color here, or the wrong brush technique there, but you would be wrong to do so. The reason is, an impressionistic painting is supposed to be analyzed for what is— an interpretive portrait of something or someone and you can only see the resemblance and the character of the person involved if you stand far enough back from the painting and analyze it in the way the artist meant for you to analyze it.
The four canonical Gospels are interpretive paintings of Jesus. Yes they are representational, yes they have historical reality behind them and indeed historical substance to them, but no, they should not be analyzed by reading them purely horizontall y from a distance of one inch from the canvas, and then yelling—- aha, contradictions. The Gospels simply are not going to yield up their meaning, significance or even historical worth to that kind of analysis. This sort of analysis reminds me of someone trying to test a person‘s hearing without a tuning fork, but rather looking in someone ear with a lighted ear probe and complaining ‘alas all I see is wax’ I see no hearing, it’s the wrong tool, it’s the wrong sort of analysis, and it yields the wrong sorts of results, by and large!
I am insisting friends that the Gospel writers were all artists, artists who cared about history as well as theology and ethics, but nonetheless artists. Under inspiration, they have a certain freedom to creatively edit their material, arrange their material, present their material, but always with the goal that they wanted to present to their audience the real and historical Jesus, both human and divine.
What I am complaining about is a horizontal reading of the Gospels at the expensive of both the genre of the documents and at the expensive of a vertical reading. I am not suggesting that horizontal readings (for example where we compare the four tellings of the feeding of the 5,000 in the four canonical Gospels), shouldn’t be undertaken. I am simply saying that if that sort of reading is used as a sort of Ockham’s razor, a tool to get at the historical reliability of this material while ignoring the Gospel writer’s intentions, the genre of the Gospels, and the vertical reading of the Gospels, one has made a horrible mistake. Should we really suppose that when the First Evangelist has Jesus say “Why do you ask me about the good? No one is good but God alone” he expected and hoped that we would compare this to Mark’s version of this same saying where Jesus is reported as saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” No, what the First Evangelist expected is a fair reading of this presentation of Jesus’ saying in the context of the Matthean presentation of the story, and in the even large context of the whole flow of the First Gospel. When the historian points out—- “Matthew has probably deliberately altered his Markan source here” we can certainly agree, but then the question has to be asked—- ‘to what purpose?’ These are not accidental changes, not discrepancies in the normal sense of the term, any more than they are straightforward contradictions. To the contrary they are deliberate alterations to make other or different theological, ethical, or historical points than Mark wanted to make. And this of course makes the historical assessment much more difficult. Can we say “well Mark is probably closer to what Jesus said on the occasion”? Yes, we can say that, not least because the Markan form of the saying is more offensive.
But then we have to remember that Jesus was not likely speaking in Greek at all— neither Mark’s Greek nor Matthew’s Greek. He was speaking in Aramaic. If we were really interested in figuring out what the historical Jesus actually said, we would need to engage in retrojection back into the original Aramaic (see for example the retrojection work of Maurice Casey on the Gospel of Mark). But of course we have no Aramaic original to compare it to. My point is this—- both Mark and Matthew and the other Gospels are artful representations trying to reveal to us the character, the true character of Jesus and the kind of things he said and did. They are not trying to give us the ipssisma verba Jesu the exact Aramaic words of Jesus. And because they are not trying to do that with either the words or deeds or general story of Jesus, but rather they were operating within the general conventions and flexibility of ancient biographies or historical works, we must take the latter always into account in assessing whether they give us a historically reliable portrait of Jesus. I would stress that they do give us historically reliable portraits of Jesus, but within the literary rules and genre practices common to ancient biographers and ancient historians. A flat horizontal reading of the Synoptics does not actually help us much in answering the historicity questions because it ignores the larger questions. These accounts can be historically reliable in the larger and proper sense and still have many differences, indeed many deliberate differences because they are and should be assessed as portraits, not photographs, and individual stories or sayings cannot be properly assesses apart from the larger perspective of what an Evangelist is trying to achieve in those ancient genre of biography or historical monographs. And there are rhetorical considerations that affect the framing of the material as well.
What about the old, tired, and wrong canard—the Gospel of John presents us with a divine Jesus, whereas the Synoptics do not. I am quite sure the first three Evangelists would object to that mischaracterization of their portraits of Jesus. Jesus in Matthew is the Wisdom of God come in the flesh, and he says so of himself in Mt. 11. This comports with the portrait of Jesus as God’s Wisdom who was present with God before the world was created and has come in the flesh (see e.g. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’). If we ask the question did the historical Jesus actually see himself as God’s Wisdom come in person to his people, I would say yes he did— this is one of the ways he viewed himself, and Matthew and John artfully present Jesus as Wisdom in interestingly different ways, but the point is the same. The differences do not negate the similarities, but rather they reflect the different purposes of these different Evangelists.
Jesus in Mark is presented as the Son of Man who one day will come on the clouds back to earth and judge its inhabitants as Daniel 7 forewarned. It was this latter claim to divinity and the bringing in of a judgment only Yahweh could bring to earth, that causes the high priest to tear his ropes and declare blasphemy. It was not the claim that Jesus might be messiah… a human category. In other words Mark as well presents Jesus as divine as well as human, something that a close reading of Daniel 7.13-14 and the Jewish tradition of interpretation of that text makes clear. In Luke Jesus is portrayed as the Lord who raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead, not merely as a young and fearless prophet, though he is called that in that same story as well. So in different and artful ways, all four Gospel writers present Jesus as both divine and human.
The problem with the minalmilist analysis of the Gospels using tools like form and source criticism is that it may prove accurate as far as it goes, but it never ever goes far enough. Using those tools the historically reconstructible Jesus is a mere tiny subset of the historical Jesus, and it is dangerous mistake to take or mistake the part for the whole. That frankly is just bad modern historiography. Imagine an art historian who insisted that the only way to appreciate those four paintings by Monet of Rouen was looking only at the details of the paint in the canvas, or worse looking at what was behind the canvas, as if the real Jesus would suddenly emerge from behind door number five. Of course it is right to say that there is a danger of mushing all things together in our wonderfully synthetic mental cuisnarts. There is just as grave a danger of trivializing and misinterpreting Jesus by trying to get behind the four canvases and then concluding that like going behind the curtain at the end of the Wizard of Oz, the wizard must surely be a far more puny and trivial historical figure than we often imagine.
The reason we have four different interpretative portraits of Jesus, but recognizably the same Jesus, is precisely because as Eduard Schweizer said long ago, he is the man who fits no one formula, he is so complex, so rich, so enormous a historical figure that he cannot be reduced to a measly pile of facts about his words and deeds, if you have any hope to really assess who he was, and what his significance was. Many, perhaps most of the differences in Gospels are intentional, not accidental, as each Evangelist seeks to bring out different aspects or nuances of Jesus’ true character. But it is wrong to privilege difference at the expense of similarity if we want to assess the historical reliability of the Gospels in their portraits of Jesus.
Those of us who hold to Markan priority rightly conclude that Matthew takes over some 93% of the source material found in Mark, with a verbatim rate of about 51%. Now if I have two term papers by two different students and they have that high a degree of similiarity, I am going to know there is a literary relationship between those Gospels. What this means in terms of Matthew and Mark is that probably the author of the first Gospel thought Mark was overwhelmingly right in what he said about Jesus, but more needed to be said, and more nuances and tweaking needed to happen to what was said to make different points for different audiences.
Imagine for a moment two Presidential portraits of FDR at the end of WWII some time ago. What is interesting about such portraits is that it is recognizably the very same figure in both paintings, but in one he is portrayed as tired and sitting in a wheel chair, in another he is strong and standing tall speaking into an ancient microphone. Now a wooden literalist, or a modern secular historian might complain— which was it when he gave that Fourth of July address in 1944? The problem with the question is that he was both. While outwardly wasting away, FDR was inwardly being renewed day by day by the news that the Nazis were going down for the count. He had stood tall ever since the day of infamy, and he would see us through to the end of that war. Portraits are interpretive, and artists have the license to vary from one narrow portrayal of a man, in order to get at his true and genuine historical character. The Gospels are also like that. They are not like those four photographs of the splendid Splinter Ted Williams, and they shouldn’t be analyzed as if they were. That’s just being a paint historian not an art historian, and what is needed to understand the historical Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is the latter.
Do the Gospels presents us with historically reliable portraits of Jesus? Absolutely they do, all four of them, if we analyze them in the right sort of historical manner. They are historically accurate in detail in so far as they intended to give us some particulars, and they are historically accurate in general when they use their wide angle lenses. But of course they are not interested in always being particular, and you should never fault a person for not being particular when they are intending to be general or wide angle or give a different angle.
Let me give you an example. In the Gospel of Mark, Mark has a favorite adverb—- euthus (illustrate). It shows up more than forty times and if we make the mistake of reading it as late Western overly time conscious people, we will think Jesus ran around Galilee at breakneck speed with his tongue out. But in fact, what Mark means by euthus is not what we mean by immediately. He means ‘next’, or he means what my grandfather used to mean when I asked him when are we going out for ice cream— his reply was always ‘directly’ by which he meant, ‘after a while’.
Or let’s take another example, let’s take the doubling that shows up in Matthew— we have two cock crows, we have two donkeys on Palm Sunday, we have two blind men and not just blind Bartimaeus. Maybe the number has to do with Hebrew use of symbolic numbers. Maybe Matthew would object if someone said, but that was not precisely what happened with the retort, but this way of telling it better brought out the historical and theological significance of what happened. I could walk through a plethora of differences in the Gospels, deliberate differences and point out how they serve the larger theological and historical purposes of those Evangelists. But by now you catch my drift. A flat horizontal reading of the Gospels, comparing details in the material they share in common, to the neglect of these sort of considerations cannot help us assess the question—do the Gospels present us with historically reliable portraits of Jesus. Indeed, it may lead to the mistaken conclusion that the Gospels are riddled with errors and contradictions, which in fact is not really true. Each Gospel writer’s portrait of Jesus must be assessed against the larger aims and the genre techniques that they seek to employ in presenting us with the Jesus of history who, as they believed, stands in continuity with the living Christ, but is not simply identical with him. The risen Lord and the historical Jesus are the same person, but in two different conditions and phases of the one messianic mission.
It is always and everywhere the job of the historian to fairly analyze the data before him taking into account every contextual factor he can—- including, in this case, the fact that we have interpretive portraits of Jesus in the Gospels in the form of ancient biographies, or in the case of Luke-Acts historical monographs, not modern snapshots. In the end, it is also the job of the good historian to prescind from philosophical pronouncements like ‘miracles don’t happen’. In the end it is the job of the good historian to give as much benefit of the doubt to these ancient sources as one would give to one’s best friends in the guild of NT scholars. And at the end of day it is the job of the real historian to say—- ‘I don’t know’ or ‘this subject is bigger than I can full grasp’, or ‘it is naïve to think that with my limited intellectual capacity and my lack of omniscient to think I can get my mental calipers fully around the historical Jesus’
One day, I believe we will all appear before the bema seat judgment of Jesus when he comes to judge the quick and the dead, and we will indeed be required to give an account of the words and deeds we have done in the body. ‘When I get there, what I want to hear is ‘well done good and faithful servant, inherit the kingdom’. What I do not want to hear is—– ‘you know Ben, you were largely wrong about me’. The Gospel writers were not wrong about Jesus, but they did not present us with data that readily yields up its historical ore to horizontal analyses or historically anachronistic methods of assessment. They present us with the Jesus of the past and the living Christ, not merely with the historically reconstructible Jesus, if the reconstruction is being done with modern historiographical constraits and presuppositions. If you want to know how to get and set the picture straight about both the Jesus of the past and the Christ of faith— stand back from the portraits of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John so that you can actually see the way Christ is presented and represented. Take in the whole first before getting up close to the canvases. And when you realize that Jesus is being presented from four different angles in these Gospels, not just one, don’t complain when you get up next to the canvas that one of them looks more brown in the very same spot where the others look red. They are works of art, not photographs, and actually the closer you get to the myriad of details on the canvas— the less you can see and assess them properly, even from a critical historical point of view. In short, reading each Gospel separately and vertically is what those Gospel writers intended us to do, what we ought to do first, what we ought to assess first before doing any horizontal analysis and closer comparison of the four. That should guide is in the way we analyze the differences, the deliberate differences we find when we do the horizontal analysis of shared material.