Are the Gospels Historical?

Anyone who wishes to engage in a thoughtful and intelligent exploration of the Christian faith will have to ask whether the gospels are historically reliable. Can we believe that the stories in the gospels are a true and accurate account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth?

In answering this question the first thing to understand is what kind of documents the gospels are. To do this we have to first say what they are not. The gospels are not factual news reports. They are not a bald list of events and eyewitness testimony as might be compiled, say, in a police report: “Just the facts ma’am.” They are not typical biography or the work of a professional historian. Neither are the gospels academic historical documents which are cross referenced with multiple documentary, archeological and anecdotal evidence. They don’t pretend to be this kind of document, so it is ridiculous to blame them for not being so.

The gospels are actually totally unique documents. They are recorded accounts of personal experiences of multiple individuals from within a faith community. They are the written record of the stories told and sermons preached by the immediate followers of Jesus Christ about his life, teaching and death. They were recorded by the faith community that followed the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.

They differ in this respect, not only from every other type of historical document, but also from every other type of religious document. The Book of Mormon and the Koran purport to be dictated by an angel to the founder of the religion. Virtually every other book-based religion bases their religion on a book written by its founder. Jesus Christ never wrote a word. He didn’t leave a book with his teachings. Why this is important will become clear momentarily. Read more.

 

  • Barbara

    Thanks for this post. There is an up and coming trend among Biblical theologians that is pushing back against the “community based” theory of Gospel formation. Basically, there is no evidence, none, that this process took place. There are no extant sermon fragments that can be show to be parts of any of the four books, so the original theory was just that, a theory with no evidence (the Q source also has no evidence: you’d think by now someone would have found something.) In addition, close scrutiny of the motivations of the original textual criticism movement reveals a seriously anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic agenda that takes some of the cred from the supposedly “objective” scientific approach. To be sure, the text-criticism and historical criticism methodologies have made contributions to Biblical scholarship, but the idea that no single person could have sat down and written each book is based on a certain modernist arrogance. The literary unity of each book points to a single mind behind each, and some very fine minds indeed. Matthew, as a tax collector and scribe, was well-educated and good with numbers. Luke was clearly well-regarded and fluent in both Hellenistic culture and Judaism. John was just plain brilliant, and clearly an eyewitness with intimate familiarity with geography and architecture of Jerusalem. Mark wrote a pamphlet for Romans: simple, to the point and written in a style that would be very familiar to our modern youth (“…and IMMEDIATELY…”) These men were very capable of relating a great narrative, in no small part, as you say, due to the oral tradition. Most information and teachings were passed on orally. Disciples of rabbis had “trained memory” and were experienced at memorization in a way that would blow us away. Go to cultures that are still primarily oral, and you see the same techniques for making thing memorable: structure, narrative flow, and so on.
    It’s worth noting, too, that modern genres and conventions did not exist in ancient times, but studies of ancient biographies put the Gospels in that genre: they are not outliers at all, as there was considerable flexibility within that genre at the time. There are numerous examples of biographies that start in adulthood, for example, and that skip or condense timeframes. Now that I think about it, using composite characters and other such imprecision is still a feature of some biographies.
    Many years ago I read a book by Reynolds Price, the esteemed professor of English at Duke. He was an expert on the development of narrative, and he made the case (against the scholarly tide at the time) that the Gospels were the “gospel truth,” that is, they could not have been fictional or mythical or made up. He was an expert on style himself, and knew that each book had been written by a single person, based on an analysis of writing style. More importantly, there are details, especially in John, that could only be written by an eyewitness. You can tell, just by comparing Marcan accounts to John: Mark could only have been an eyewitness to a few events; John was present with Jesus for practically everything by everyone’s account. John tells us how many jars of water at Cana, how many fish in the net, and how the whole house smelled of the perfume that Mary anointed Jesus with. People who write second hand accounts never write about how places smell unless they have been trained to make up stories, a development in narrative history that comes about 1800 years after Jesus lived.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I agree. When I wrote that they were the result of the community I did not mean that they were written by more than one person, but that the sources for the authors were from the community.

    • http://www.catholiccrossreference.com/tools/ Jeffrey Pinyan

      “People who write second hand accounts never write about how places smell unless they have been trained to make up stories, a development in narrative history that comes about 1800 years after Jesus lived.”

      Then what do you make of all the apocryphal, pseudo-epigraphical, and otherwise fictional religious texts written during the first few centuries of the Church?

      • Barbara

        The stories are ruled out as Sacred Scripture for various reasons which point to their unreliability, such as contradiction to what was known to be true (h/t Fr. Longenecker). I’m only generally familiar with the criteria that the ECF and bishops used to determine which of many writings were genuine in their origin, but these criteria are common sense for the most part. Tradition, coherence, no completely off-beat claims. Paradoxically, claims of authorship seem not to carry a lot of weight without other evidence, so the Gospel according to St. Thomas doesn’t pass muster. St. Mark, for example, was probably very well-known to the early Christian community, but we know nearly nothing about him from Biblical or even extra-Biblical sources except that the Early Church Fathers attributed authorship of the second Gospel to him. No one knows who authored Hebrews, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s so wonderful.

        By the way, people did make up stories, but there are differences between made-up stories and true ones that are a part of the development of narrative. It’s likely that those differences were really more obvious to the early Christians, Jews and Greeks than they are to us.

  • http://www.treesforlunch.blogspot.com JD Curtis

    Well done Fr. D. I once emailed an apologist something similar and this was his reply for those out there that are interested in this sort of thing.

  • http://rgrebenc.wordpress.com/ Richard G

    Fr.:
    Thanks for this. I still have difficulty when details of the same scene contradict each other in different gospels. Recalling Dei Verbum 11: “[S]ince everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.”
    How do we then understand “without error”? Since the Holy Spirit is the principal author of scripture, would He not inspire the writer to recheck facts or omit certain details if they were objectively (although certainly not intentionally) incorrect?
    An example is today’s gospel reading. Mk 6:8 says: “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” Mt 10:9-10 says: “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” Lk 10:4 says: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.” Mark says they were allowed a stick, Matthew says no, Luke is silent. It seems very unlikely these are three different occasions. Thus, either the Lord addressed it or He didn’t, although an omission like Luke’s doesn’t bother me. But if He did address it, either He allowed a stick or He didn’t. This is a plain contradiction. This may be a minor detail, but it seems to be avoidable.
    How are we to understand this and similar examples in light of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?
    Thank you for your time and your wonderful blog.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Jesus either gave two sets of instructions at different times, but it is more likely that he gave a set of instructions emphasizing simplicity of life and the details were remembered differently by the different witnesses. What does this prove? First of all that while the Scriptures are inspired, they are also the work of humans and a human process. Secondly, it shows that the gospels are historical–discrepancy of detail is what you would expect from an authentic work. Exact matching would indicate strenuous editing. Thirdly, the spiritual point is in the principle of simplicity–not in some kind of strict rules for a new religious order.

      • pHil

        Hello Fr,
        could you connect your response to Dei Verbum? Would we call this a contradiction? Would we say the Holy Spirit did not assert the writers to give the correct details? Would we just say we don’t know how it doesn’t contradict? I know we can’t impose our understanding of history on the writers, but don’t really know how I would explain this to a bunch of high school kids. Thanks

    • Richard A

      What is so obviously bogus about St. Augustine’s attempts to reconcile the accounts in his harmony of the Gospels?

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I have lived and worked in third world areas, and the gospels ring true, both about the way the poor (working class) think and act, and also the corruption and tyranny of the government. Most of the experts seem to view those times through the lens of the modern world, and find small things that are against their “knowledge”, but to those of us who have lived in poor countries, the stories sound like what is going on right now around us.

    Yes, I can see Jesus preaching in small towns and gathering crowds of the poor looking for hope, and even the most sceptical atheist would know such folks will suddenly discover they are “cured”…preachers here in the Philippines do that all the time. Hysteria? natural healing? Placebo effect? Miracle? Who knows: but to the folks cured, it is a miracle…

    Another part often overlooked by “experts” is how corruption works. They see Jesus as revolutionary vs big bad Rome (a Marxist analysis). But that ignores the place of corruption in daily life faced by ordinary folks…and yes, I can see why the corrupt Roman appointed priests in the Temple were so mad when he preached against their corruption.

    I laugh at effete Westerners who object to Judas being called a “thief”: anyone in the Philippines would figure he was taking “gifts” from those wanting to see Judas, and skimming off the top of the poor fund, the way local politicians do here all the time.) DItto for throwing out the corrupt businessmen in the Temple, who were bilking the poor and giving the priests kickbacks.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I think that studying other histories and biographies from the same period is very revealing. We tend to have a modernist assumption that history, myth, legend, and so forth are all formally distinguishable genres. As such, we typically ask “is this historical” to mean “is everything in here a literal play-by-play account of events that actually occurred?” Anyone familiar with ancient histories and biographies knows that the ancient mind was not so interested in these divisions.

    There seem, therefore, to be two errors produced by a “modernist” reading: one, that the whole thing, every word, is a play-by-play historical journalistic account; the other, that the whole thing must be a myth or legend, a kind of “communal folk cycle” based on the life of a beloved figure. Both are a bit absurd. The Gospels seem to be in many ways an exemplary piece of ancient biography: they are stories of a man who in many ways was larger than the words that could be used to describe him, encountered by a variety of people with different interests and knowledge who therefore had different experiences of that man. Reading it seems less about wondering “did this happen just like it said” and more about “what did the gospel writers experience of this man?” No offense meant to historical criticism, which I think is as important to the Gospels as it is to Caesar’s Commentary, but reducing one’s reading and understanding of the Gospel to historical criticism is a bit like reducing a man to his obituary blurb.

  • http://www.prophecysociety.org Dan Bruce

    A harmony of the Gospels can be a useful tool, since it tends to follow a chronological and geographical order. From a harmony, for instance, it is easy to see that the Gospel of John reports mainly on things that were done and said in Judea and the south, which perhaps indicates that the testimony in John is that of a Judean witness (Lazarus?), whereas the synoptics report mainly on those things that were said and done in Galilee and the north. A chronological and geographical understanding of Jesus’ public ministry is important for proper interpretation of his words and deeds.

    • http://www.catholiccrossreference.com/tools/ Jeffrey Pinyan

      Your mention of Lazarus reminds me that I read a lengthy (really lengthy) essay on the identity of the “beloved disciple” mentioned in John’s Gospel; the author of the essay believes it is actually Lazarus. Lazarus, after all, is “the one whom [Jesus] love[s]” (John 11:3) and is brought back from the dead after four days, perhaps leading some to wonder if he would ever die again (cf. John 21:23).

  • Glenn Juday

    My wife and I took a high-powered pilgrimage with Steve and Janet (and Scott Hahn and Mike Aquilina) and local expert Christian guides in May 2011. I am a research scientist at a university and some of my work puts in touch with archeologists. I investigate things in the environment and in past eras for a living. Upon first arriving in Israel, my professional senses were engaged right away.

    I can say that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I encountered that was inconsistent with the familiar Biblical narrative that any Catholic who goes to Mass hears in the 7,000 or so of the biblical verses that are proclaimed in the 3-yr cycle of readings at Sunday Mass. It became immediately apparent to me that the New Testament could not have been forged or fudged or invented, because the simple problem of getting all the places, names, period details, and environmental clues correct would have taken a team of geniuses or a supercomputer. This sets aside the challenge of the theological content. The challenge of fitting the New Testament into a harmonious relationship with the Old Testament – again, purely from the standpoint of people places, details, plants, rocks, etc. – is vastly more complicated than the challenge of making the accounts of the New Testament consistent. The facts virtually scream out a message of authenticity.

    I got so interested I wrote a manuscript as a series of 12 blog posts about the pilgrimage.
    (final post with links to earlier at bottom =: http://snras.blogspot.com/2011/11/holy-land-healing-betrayal-and-home.html). I dived down into the specialized research of a couple of fields – history, archeology, natural history, geology.

    Everything fits the way it is told in the Biblical narrative, and it can’t fit in other ways. Note well – not “fits best in by following the Biblical narrative,” but CANNOT fit in other ways. Certainly today we have remaining uncertainties about exact locations of Biblical incidents, but these are forthrightly admitted in the Catholic Church and on the scene, and have been for a long time. There are archeological surprises and new findings all the time, which potentially could test the Biblically-provided account of the basic layout of the physical arrangement of sites. In fact we are in the middle of what will be remembered as the golden age of Biblical archeology. But all new findings have ended up confirming the Biblical narrative all the more by eliminating “creative” or novel interpretations that assume a mythological, metaphorical, or invented basis to the gospels and remainder of the New Testament.

    And there is a reason for this coherence. The events described are all true and are described by reliable witnesses, directly, or at most, as the recorded testimony of those who were.

    You have to be deeply lost in myths yourself and willfully ignore the evidence to even half-seriously entertain the idea of being skeptical of the historical Israel, Jesus, and early Church as described on the scene in the places indicated. It is so sad that some people just don’t have the advantage of the continuous historical witness of the Catholic Church to overcome inertia or the various fads that promote close mindedness over time.

    • Korou

      How do archaeological findings confirm whether or not miracles took place? Apart from countering skeptics (if there are any such) who claim that Jerusalem never existed, I can’t see anything to justify your excitement.
      Do archeaological findings confirm whether or not anything supernatural occurred?

      • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

        The commenter’s point is that the archeological findings confirm the authenticity of the gospels as historical accounts. However, there are several archeological elements that corroborate the miraculous dimension of Christ’s life–the empty tomb and the Shroud of Turin.

        • Korou

          His enthusiasm seems a bit out of proportion. Still, glad he’s happpy.

  • Pingback: Are the Gospels Historical? « Fr Stephen Smuts

  • Michael

    Father, you lost me quickly when you claimed that “most scholars” see the synoptics as written by 65 AD. That’s not the case as far as I’ve read. Nowdays, perhaps Mark would be dated at 65 AD, but usually I see a date of 80 or 85 AD for Matthew and Luke. I’m not saying if that is correct or not, but I am saying that right away you are exaggerating the facts that are in your favor. I personally am a believer, but it bothers me when you seem to be 20 or 30 years behind the time as to what “most” scholars think.

  • Glenn Juday

    “Apart from countering skeptics (if there are any such) who claim that Jerusalem never existed, I can’t see anything to justify your excitement.”

    The gospels are the subject of this discussion thread. Their name means “good news.” As Fr. Longenecker pointed out, I offered set of facts and observations that strongly, if not presumptively, make the case for their historicity. A normal human reaction upon encountering good news is excitement, the reductio ad absurdum comment about the existence of Jerusalem notwithstanding. For a serious treatment of the subject of how geology and geography come together with the gospel narrative and confer verisimilitude, I refer you to my blog/chapters at the links:
    http://snras.blogspot.com/2011/06/holy-land-jerusalem.html

    http://snras.blogspot.com/2011/06/holy-land-fifth-gospel.html

    http://snras.blogspot.com/2011/07/holy-land-via-dolorosa-stations-of.html

    As for miracles, in my experience the resistance to accepting their reality, and the testimony of reliability of witnesses to their reality, often comes down to a determination to resist the faith proposition. But a careful analysis, of course, will reveal that those are two related, but different, subjects. One can accept that a supernatural event took place without accepting the Jewish or Catholic faith. That very pattern is recorded in most accounts of miracles. And unfortunately, there is something about our modern culture that insists on placing miracles exclusively into the category of an entertainment spectacle and to resist serious engagement with the profound coherence they often convey regarding human lives, symbols, the relationship between heaven and Earth, faith, and Divine goodness. It is churlish at best to, a priori, wall off this one element of sublime human experience on the off chance that it will lead to inconvenient conclusions, not to say anti-intellectual.

    In fact, as I demonstrate, if you would be pleased to read in the links provided, there is a profound agreement among the elements of natural history, geography, and history, now amply established as archeological and scientific fact, and the gospel narrative. The coordination of a conspiracy to create a bogus mythological gospel narrative in numerous different source documents, over a sustained period of time while getting the all the essential empirical facts correct is unsupportable in a serious and rational mind. To have done all that and then invented the places, symbols, and elements of faith so harmonious with supernatural acts (miracles) that themselves have a higher coherence of their own, is an achievement so far beyond the evident capabilities of first century Roman Palestine as to make the conclusion of specific Divine intervention the least astounding and most reasonable conclusion. Using our rational faculties, when we encounter such a situation we credit or extend belief unless we have a specific animus against truth.

  • Mike

    “Their sources therefore, were Peter and Paul–both eyewitnesses to the events portrayed in the gospel.”

    Paul was an eyewitness to the events portrayed in the Gospel? That’s news to me.

  • Joe

    Many naturally assume that proponents of late composition of the New Testament base conclusions on sound scholarship rooted in recent discoveries in History, Archeology, Patristics, Papyrology and related fields. These scholars like Rudolph Bultmann pride themselves on their scientific approach to biblical interpretation . Certainly it would seem their arguments must be buttressed by data coming from objective research . Nothing could be further from the truth. Those supporting late authorship base their statements solely on the wobbly foundation of their own fanciful imaginations.

    Recently, the pioneering labors of J T Robinson “Redating the New Testament”, C Peter Theide efforts mentioned in Matthew D’Ancona “Eyewitness to Jesus” , Gunther Zuntz, Orchard and Riley “Order of Synoptics”, Eta Linnemann”Historical Criticism of the Bible” all point to composition from 40 A.D to 70A.D.

    In his book “Hidden Gospels, P Jenkins exposes the motives of those advancing the cause of the later dates for biblical composition. It is interesting to note the one of Bultmann’s current disciples, Elaine Pagels, has been accused of academic fraud in her book “Gnostic Gospels” which advances the myth of late dating . Thus the dating issue is far from settled.

  • Korou

    Alright, let’s consider the question.

    “Anyone who wishes to engage in a thoughtful and intelligent exploration of the Christian faith will have to ask whether the gospels are historically reliable. Can we believe that the stories in the gospels are a true and accurate account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth?”
    - It’s most convenient that, in your post, you answer your own question right from the beginning.
    “The gospels are not factual news reports. They are not a bald list of events and eyewitness testimony as might be compiled, say, in a police report: “Just the facts ma’am.” They are not typical biography or the work of a professional historian. Neither are the gospels academic historical documents which are cross referenced with multiple documentary, archeological and anecdotal evidence.”
    - Well, all of that is a pity, because these kinds of documents, or writings similar to them, would be exactly the kind of thing we’d need if we wanted to find out if the gospels are “historically reliable” and give a “true and accurate account of the life of Jesus.” If we had works of history, cross-referenced and giving their sources, including the dates that they were written and who wrote them – we would certainly be in a much better position to say what happened. Sadly, we don’t.
    It’s a pretty strange the tactic you have there – saying “They don’t pretend to be this kind of document, so it is ridiculous to blame them for not being so.” It doesn’t matter at all what they pretend to be or don’t pretend to be. What they are – by your own admission – is unreliable sources of information about history. If you don’t like that, that’s a problem for you, not for non-Christians. You can’t just say that because your evidence is low-quality you should then be held to a lower standard. If you say, “It would be great if we had better evidence, but this is all we have, so take it or leave it,” and then complain when people say, “Okay, we’ll leave it.”

  • Glenn Juday

    “Well, all of that is a pity, because these kinds of documents, or writings similar to them, would be exactly the kind of thing we’d need if we wanted to find out if the gospels are “historically reliable” and give a “true and accurate account of the life of Jesus.””

    The conclusion does not logically follow at all. These are the kinds of documents you and people of our culture and time would prefer and are accustomed to, indeed here demand. But such culturally conditioned preferences hardly exhaust the possibilities of fulfilling the requirements necessary to establish historical reliability in providing a true and accurate account. Setting aside cultural blindness and a tendency to narrow mindedness are important and necessary steps in coming to grips with any issue of truth. Engaging with the full body of evidence and dealing with it in an open minded spirit is a requirement for logic to then proceed, rather than hedging the pursuit of truth with a series of procedural ultimatums.

    “What they are – by your own admission – is unreliable sources of information about history.”

    An attentive reading of Fr. Longenecker’s carefully stated point will reveal that he made nothing at all like such an admission. Again, the unfamiliar nature of a different culture of the past is not to be feared, but needs to be appreciated in order to advance human understanding. There are numerous element of familiar contemporary life, modes of expression, and consensus on credible sources of information that you now rely on and have through all your formative years which two millennia from now will be regarded as primitive and beneath the commonly accepted standards. Still, if people of such a future made some real effort they could understand you and your life and the sources of information, crude as they may be seen in retrospect, that you reasonably relied on, and indeed that they could rely on. This might even include testimony from rustics such as ourselves. For example, in mitigation of your announced position of skepticism, a future advocate might offer the defense that access to the synthesis of the existing powerful body of information was not very advanced, and early 21st century people were formed and educated according to outdated, possibly crude, but certainly very different standards than their own. What would we then think of a respondent in that time who would merely wave that all away, and insist on something more familiar and contemporary before he conceded credibility to the testimony of such primitives as us?

    • Korou

      “The conclusion does not logically follow at all. These are the kinds of documents you and people of our culture and time would prefer and are accustomed to, indeed here demand. But such culturally conditioned preferences hardly exhaust the possibilities of fulfilling the requirements necessary to establish historical reliability in providing a true and accurate account.”
      The conclusion follows just fine. The problem isn’t that the gospels aren’t the kind of source we are used to dealing with today; the problem is that for any kind of historical soource to be useful it needs to fulfil certain criteria. The aim of history is always to create the most realistic possible representation of what happened, even though we know this is a target impossible to hit in practice. By the standards of other sources from their time, the gospels are unreliable and their writers are poor historians – or, if you prefer, poor biographers.

      “An attentive reading of Fr. Longenecker’s carefully stated point will reveal that he made nothing at all like such an admission.”
      Sorry, it won’t; . The admission that can be clearly inferred from what he wrote. In trying to protect the gospels from being exposed to the standards that we would use for other and higher quality sources he reveals their low quality.
      Trying to shift the blame by claiming a different standard of evidence won’t work, and the reason is that by the very standards existing at the time they were written the gospels fail to prove themselves; there were many writings from the same period which are of a much higher standard and are much more reliable.

      Fr. Longenecker said:
      “The gospels are not factual news reports. They are not a bald list of events and eyewitness testimony as might be compiled, say, in a police report: “Just the facts ma’am.” They are not typical biography or the work of a professional historian. Neither are the gospels academic historical documents which are cross referenced with multiple documentary, archeological and anecdotal evidence. ”

      But it would have been quite possible for the gospel writers to write as historians, to date and reference their work, to supply details which we could have used to check them against; Luke attempts it, though his gospel is a poor specimen of critical historical work.

      It’s no good at all saying “well, that isn’t what they were trying to do.” That has no bearing at all on the fact that, as historical sources go, they are of low quality and dangerous to rely on.

      And that’s the admission that Fr. Longenecker made in his opening two paragraphs.

  • Korou

    As to history and historians – basically, you seem to be trying to discredit the entire practice, presumably so that the low reliability of the gospels will not seem so out of place.
    Yes, every historian has a bias; and yes, primary and secondary sources that we make history from need interpreting; and yes, it is impossible to completely discount our biases and preconceptions. But that doesn’t mean that history is worthless, it means that we must be aware of our own and other’s biases and take them into consideration. What a good historian does is make his methods transparent; therefore people reading his history can see how he came to his conclusions. He lists the sources he used, and says what conclusions he drew from them, how he drew them and why. He inspects his sources critically, looking for biases in them and considers what might have been left out or altered.
    To take a simple hypothetical example: supposing an historian read an account of a king, an account which praised the king’s wisdom, strength and goodness. The historian would naturally be interested in who wrote the account; finding that it was written by a trusted servant of the king would lead the historian to distrust that account accordingly and to be careful in relying on it, since the writer obviously had a motive which might have affected his impartiality.

    “So, to return to the gospels, we have before us documents that purport to record historical events. The gospel says they are written “so that you might know that Jesus is Christ the Son of God.” They are derived from the experience of the first Christian community and written to help convert people to the Christian faith. Therefore we are well aware of the bias and the intention of the documents. Does this disqualify them completely?”
    - Not completely, no, because even the most unreliable document – even one full of lies – would still have some value to an historian.
    However, since (as you admit) they were written with the express purpose of convincing people of something – not to record exactly what happened, but for the purpose of persuading people to become Christians – that is a very strong bias. So yes, we should be very careful about trusting them.
    Disqualify them completely? Well, more or less, yes! Their bias does make them quite untrustworthy and seriously weakens their credibility.
    Tell me, if a document was found written by Judas, in which he said that he was quite innocent and it was actually Peter who betrayed Jesus, would you believe that? Or would you consider that the writer had an ulterior motive which would mean he could not be relied on?
    Finally, if “The selection of the facts and the interpretation of the facts may be dubious and open to criticism,” then how can that mean that the sources can be trusted?

  • Korou

    Who wrote the gospel of Mark? What you didn’t mention is that the single sole reason we assume it was Mark, a companion to Peter, is because of a single reference by Papias. Unfortunately we have no record of anything Papias ever wrote; the only reference we have of him is quotes by Eusebius. This is of course the Eusebius who is famous for saying that falsehoods in the service of Christ are perfectly acceptable, that lying is justifiable if it brings souls to Christ, and who forged a passage of Josephus to make the Jewish historian praise Jesus.
    So saying that we know that Mark, a companion of Peter, wrote the first gospel is a very thin thread indeed!

    How reliable were the memories by the time they were written down? Well, say that the first three gospels were written thirty years after Jesus’ death. The average lifespan at that time was about forty years, which means that anyone writing at that time would have been a very old man; these are two things which must be borne in mind when reading the gospels. First, thirty years – and this was the absolute minimum, it was likely much longer for Matthew and Luke – is a very long time indeed to remember something accurately, particularly if it is an old man trying to remember.

    It sounds most impressive – the picture you paint of classes of early Christians, solemnly reciting the stories and correcting each other every time a word is out of place. Of course, we have no evidence that this did in fact take place; all you’ve done is to assume that this is what happened, based on what Jews do today and what they did 2000 years ago. But we are talking here about early Christians – a young and growing religion. The Jews of today and the Jews of Jesus’ time had an orthodox religion, every part of which was agreed on, and so anyone who did recite a mistake could be corrected; the Jesus story, in complete contrast, was evolving and changing.

    Reading your description one would never suspect that there were dozens of different schools of thought about who and what Jesus was, dozens of different sects and gospels, with “heresies” popping up all over the place. There were some who believed that Jesus was not a real human, some who believed he had been spiritually and not physically resurrected; all sorts of different ideas! And it completely sinks your point about the one true story being passed around from mouth to mouth until it was written down, in exactly correct detail. If this were so, the many different forms of Christianity which did spring up never would have.

    You said: “Critics of the historicity of the gospels like to talk in vague terms of “they mythological elements” which crept into the gospel account. However, no one actually quotes chapter and verse.”
    Actually, you can clearly see that as the gospels are written later and later the story becomes more and more fantastic; the writers obviously wishing to make the story more and more impressive. We start off with Mark’s gospel, which has a simple and straightforward story – the grave is empty, and no Jesus is seen. Then, in Matthew (fifty years after the event) the story tells us that Jesus did appear; plus miracles of earthquakes and rolling stones – and, oh yes, reanimated corpses walking around Jerusalem! Nothing mythical at all about this? And strangely enough, nobody else thought this was startling enough to record? Not a single reference outside the Bible?
    Then we go on to Luke, a few years later, and two angels get added to the Jesus narrative.
    Finally, with John – now considerably later. He obviously feels the need to include extra “proofs.” So we have Jesus appearing much more frequently and obviously and even saying to Thomas “here I am! You can touch me and feel my wounds to see that I am real – and by the way, it really is better if people believe without asking for proof.” Come now, isn’t it obvious that John (whoever he was) wrote this directly to answer critics? That he added this story to (a) give a further proof that Jesus undeniably came back in physical form and (b) to discourage people for asking for evidence?
    So yes, as the gospels are written later and later, you can clearly see the writers embellishing on the stories to make them more impressive and “convincing”.
    As for other mythical elements – well, if you’re going to dismiss them as supernatural you could do the same for any myth. You might as well ask what’s mythical about the Greek stories – Zeus was a God, wasn’t he, and so how is it strange if he were to turn himself into a shower of gold, or an animal, or throw down lightning? Anyway, no mythical elements in the Bible? What would you call a virgin birth – a very common theme in mythical stories; what do you call the magical star above Jesus’ birthplace? What do you call a herd of demonically possessed swine?

  • Korou

    You said: “What they do demand is that the reader accept that they are the record of a real experience by a historical person. So, for example, one may doubt that Jesus walked on the water. One may come up with all sorts of other explanations. However, one must accept that Peter and the other disciples experienced Jesus walking on the water. What actually happened may be open for question and debate, but the one thing we know happened is that twelve men perceived another man to be walking to them on the waves.”
    - But this is just completely wrong. If what happened is open to question and debate, then how can we know that they really saw this? The obvious explanation, of course, is that it was made up. You may not agree with that, but it’s ridiculous to say that it can’t even be considered.
    As to your story about the cars – “One may dispute the miracle, say that there must be another explanation and find that element of the story incredible, but the mere fact of the supernatural element of the story does not negate the fact that we experienced something otherwise inexplicable, and that the story we told was essentially, therefore true–that is to say–it was a true account of something we experienced.”
    “essentially therefore true” – what a fantastic way to spin it! No, it was not “essentially therefore true.” It’s essentially therefore unproven. This is just like a UFO fanatic saying: “Yes, the photos may prove that what I thought was a UFO was actually a strange-shaped cloud; but that doesn’t change the fact that I saw something there which really appeared to be a UFO to me!”

    Next: why would anybody fabricate a tale which was “so obviously incredible?”
    Well, there’s a few points to consider:
    First, stories like this weren’t obviously incredible; they were commonplace. People were quite ready to believe anything in those days – miracles, healings, resurrections, nobody would have thought that any of these were at all unusual or worth questioning. This was what society was like at the time.
    Why would they do it? Plenty of reasons. Of course, it brought them plenty of respect and prestige to the leaders of a new religion; having failed Jesus and seen him executed they would be under tremendous psychological pressure to redeem themselves, and creating a religion which showed that he actually won – came back from the dead and won a spiritual victory – would be just what they needed. And as to ridicule and persecution – well, obviously they weren’t going to get executed straight away! And persecution of Christians didn’t become official until many years later.
    And of course the main reason: because it would bring more converts to the glory of God. Plenty of Christians throughout the ages have thought that a lie is justifiable if it brings souls to be saved. And if you were writing stories about Jesus, why not embellish them a little, tweak the facts here and there, add what should have happened? Where’s the harm, if it brings more people to salvation?

    To conclude, I will quote your final paragraph, with some comments:
    “It is true that the gospels do not measure up to the standards of modern critical historical practice
    (quite true, they don’t; and therefore we should be extremely wary about accepting what they say. It’s quite unacceptable to simply take whatever they say at face value and assume that it must be true because it is written there).
    But they do not purport to be modern, scientifically verifiable documents
    (basically, that is saying “you can’t hold these sources to high standards, they never claimed to be of a high quality; if your evidence is weak, you don’t get to excuse it by saying it never claimed to be strong!)
    They are the records of real events
    (allegedly)
    experienced by real people
    (anonymous people)
    within the faith community following Jesus Christ
    (that sounds very unreliable – all interested sources).
    One of the key elements of this community’s belief was that astounding events really did happen within human history, and the gospel stories are the record of those events.”
    (the people at this time were, by our standards, extremely credulous as a society and believed all sorts of nonsense and magic).

    The important thing is this: if you want to actually know what happened (or, to be historically pedantic, what is most likely to have happened) then what will you do?
    You are told that there is evidence that a man called Jesus lived 2000 years ago, worked miracles, died and was resurrected.
    You ask what this evidence is.
    You are told that there are four documents which provide the evidence for this story.
    Now you could just read the documents and accept them as true, if you didn’t care if they were true or not! But if you are interested in what really happened you will examine them critically.
    Who wrote them?
    We don’t know. There are some theories and suggestions, but the documents are essentially anonymous.
    Alright, why did they write them?
    By common admission, they were written in order to gather converts to a new religion. Therefore they have a strong bias which makes it likely the writers distorted the truth in order to accomplish their aim.
    When were they written?
    It’s hard to say, but we know that it was a long time after the event – thirty years at a minimum, more likely fifty for the second two, and sixty for the third.
    What does this mean?
    That there was plenty of time for the stories in them to be changed.
    Well, does anyone apart from these four interested parties confirm anything they say? Well, the settings they were in are confirmed as generally accurate, but the events themselves, no other writer has ever been found.
    But these are the only sources, right? Sadly not – there are a large number of alternative accounts, many giving great variations from them; in addition, at the time these documents were being written there were many other believers who had different ideas, which were only suppressed when the version now accepted as orthodox came to power in the Roman Empire.

    Can we believe that the stories in the gospels are a true and accurate account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth?
    Well no, we can’t. Elements of them may be true, but we have no real way of knowing. As historical sources and as historical writings they are, at best, unreliable.

    • flyingvic

      Smoke and mirrors, Korou! In the course of what purports to be a rational response to the original post you do come out with some beauties, don’t you!
      “People were quite ready to believe anything in those days.” Really? You know that for certain? Is it not more likely that there was just the same mixture of scepticism and credulity in people that we see today? How many people, for example, who are street-wise in so many other ways, fall victim to an ‘obvious’ internet scam? You simply can’t get away with describing the entire ancient world as being gullible.
      “Why would they do it?” Respect and prestige? The evidence is quite to the contrary. Ridicule and persecution? That started straight away. Do you think that there was no-one who replied to their message, “Well, go on, then, show us! Let him appear! Prove it!” Psychological pressure? Surely the greatest psychological pressure would come from maintaining their faith and proclamation, all of them, individually, down all the years, in the face of imprisonment, punishment, torture and death, without cracking, without recanting, and with no visible or earthly reward for doing so? The only explanation that makes any sense of all that to me is that they believed absolutely in the truth of what they were proclaiming – and that truth, to which they remained faithful unto death, was the basis of the Gospels.
      “And of course the main reason: because it would bring more converts to the glory of God.” And of what use would that be, of what possible benefit to the preacher or apostle, if it resulted in their own death – and they knew that it was all based upon a lie? If you don’t believe something yourself, you’re hardly going to put your own life on the line in order to convince someone else that it is true. That would make no sense at all.
      ” . . they have a strong bias which makes it likely the writers distorted the truth . .” LIKELY? That provides a prima facie case for throwing every single book of history and biography out of the window. Even if we accept the facts, the writer’s conclusions are LIKELY to be distorting the truth because he’s trying to convince us that he is right – so out it goes! Take television’s CSI: that seems these days to set the standard of ‘proof’ that people require to convince them of anything. But the vast majority of cases that come before our courts do not have evidence like that to call upon. Instead, they ask for witnesses, ordinary, inexpert people who happen to have seen something that has a bearing on the case in hand and who tell what they have seen. Witnesses of the same event do not necessarily tell exactly the same story and will sometimes contradict each other; and at the end of the proceedings the jury and the judge have to decide which ones they believe, which ones have ‘the ring of truth’ about their testimony. They are utterly dependent upon their own perceptions and their personal judgement – as we all are so often in this life at some of its most important moments – e.g. when deciding about getting married, there’s no CSI-style evidence to help us there!
      ” . . there was plenty of time for the stories in them to be changed.” This flies in the face of all that we know about the oral tradition of the ancient world (a tradition, by the way, that was observed in existence in parts of Europe ravaged by WWII, where travelling story-tellers learned immense amounts of verse about the heroic resistance to the Nazis) where individuals entertained whole communities by repeating Homer word for word. (And have you never had the experience of telling a favouirite story to a small child who is nearly asleep, but who will firmly correct you if you miss even a single word from the familiar tale?) I am quite sure that the stories about Jesus were well known and often repeated, learned by heart by those who could not read, just as the Old Testament was learned by heart by those whom had no access to books or scrolls. Such stories, learned in that way, do not change.
      Do the Gospels have ‘the ring of truth’ about them? By all means make up your own mind about them using whatever criteria you feel to be appropriate. But you’ll have to do a better job than this if you want to rule them out of court.

      • Korou

        “Smoke and mirrors” describes the opening post quite well, I think.
        Yes, people were particularly credulous in those days (and pointing out that they still are today doesn’t help your case at all, I’m afraid). Beliefs in gods, devils, demons and spirits were taken for granted; the reaction of most people to hearing accounts of miracles would not be to say, “Hang on a moment, that doesn’t make sense!” but to accept it. The reasons they would have for rejecting a religion would have very little to do with rational skepticism, being more likely based on contradictions wiith the religion they had at the moment. Read this, which gives examples in more detail: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.htmlhttp://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.html
        So the point stands. Next:
        Do you really think that the early Christians weren’t capable of handling people who said, “Well, go on, then, show us! Let him appear! Prove it!” What would you say if I turned up in your church and said that to you? Do you think your faith would be shaken at all? Religious fanatics are quite capable of handling ridicule and mockery. It doesn’t even necessarily bother them – sometimes it reinforces their beliefs – being persecuted by the satanic forces of the world! I repeat, serious persecution of Christians, government sponsored persecution, didn’t start until the religion had firmly taken root.

        “And of what use would that be, of what possible benefit to the preacher or apostle, if it resulted in their own death – and they knew that it was all based upon a lie? ”
        Obviously they didn’t know that it was based on a lie – they felt and sincerely believed that they were doing what God wanted them to do. Jesus was dead, but his work must live on. If this means that a dream of him visiting you can be…reframed…as a spiritual and then a physical resurrection – well, if you know anything at all about human psychology you’ll know that religious fanatics find it very easy to convince themselves of anything.
        Also, you seem to think that I’m imagining the people who wrote the gospels as cunning tricksters, deliberately and cynically inventing a religion in order to build up little empires. Not at all; they were very probably sincere in the beliefs that they had manufactures from themselves, built up from dreams and hallucinations and embroidered in their retellings – which is of course how religions get created all the time. Taking them at face value and believing every word they say without checking it is naive.
        And of course Paul could have been entirely sincere right from his conversion – he never claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh, did he? And then the first of the actual gospels were written by some anonymous Christian – thirty or more years later!
        Analogies of law courts are irrelevant here, I’m afraid – we’re talking about history, not courtrooms.
        As for oral history, if the stories about Jesus were repeated word for word and preserved perfectly, why were there such a lot of heretical Christians about, spinning their own versions of Christianity? This quite simply contradicts the idea that the oral tradition preserved the recounts of Jesus’ life. And you’re really not helping yourself using imagined stories about small children or recounts of storytellers in World War II).
        This was a new and growing religion, in a largley illiterate society, a religion which emphasised the importance of faith and revelation. It was not a society of reasoning thinkers who would look at claims and carefully research them to see how accurate they were.

        If you’re going to go around making claims like the gospels are historically reliable you’d better be prepared to back them up. Taking anonymous and undated sources, written by people with prejudiced views, and expecting people to take them at face value is an excellent way to get “ruled out of court.”

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          K: “People were particularly credulous in those days (and pointing out that they still are today doesn’t help your case at all, I’m afraid). Beliefs in gods, devils, demons and spirits were taken for granted; the reaction of most people to hearing accounts of miracles would not be to say, “Hang on a moment, that doesn’t make sense!” but to accept it.”

          Nonsense. People knew back then that resurrections and Virgin Births did not happen, and they were just as incredulous. The apostle Thomas is just such a one.

          K: “Obviously they didn’t know that it was based on a lie – they felt and sincerely believed that they were doing what God wanted them to do. Jesus was dead, but his work must live on. If this means that a dream of him visiting you can be…reframed…as a spiritual and then a physical resurrection – well, if you know anything at all about human psychology you’ll know that religious fanatics find it very easy to convince themselves of anything.”

          Except that the “dream” appeared to hundreds of people, ate meals with them, spoke to them and invited them to put their fingers in his wounds. And we are supposed to believe that these people were willing to be imprisoned, tortured and killed for a misunderstanding? C’mon. Don’t you think when the Roman soldiers came along they would have said, “Hold on guys. You don’t understand. He didn’t really rise from the dead physically. We were just re-framing a dream.”

          K: “they were very probably sincere in the beliefs that they had manufactures from themselves, built up from dreams and hallucinations and embroidered in their retellings – which is of course how religions get created all the time.”

          Name one religion that has been formed in this way.

          K: “serious persecution of Christians, government sponsored persecution, didn’t start until the religion had firmly taken root.”

          False. The disciples of Jesus Christ were pursued, persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed from the beginning. This was done in collusion with the Jewish and Roman authorities. Read the Book of Acts and the history of the early church. The records of the persecutions from the time of Nero in the early 60s is well documented and the persecution through the second century are just as well recorded.

          “why were there such a lot of heretical Christians about, spinning their own versions of Christianity? This quite simply contradicts the idea that the oral tradition preserved the recounts of Jesus’ life.”

          Name some of these groups of heretical Christians spinning their own versions of Christianity which date from the first century. Name one and give the dates. The heretical groups developed after the gospels were written.

          “If you’re going to go around making claims like the gospels are historically reliable you’d better be prepared to back them up.”

          See my post for today.

          • http://houseofcantor.blogspot.com John Cantor

            ~Except that the “dream” appeared to hundreds of people, ate meals with them, spoke to them and invited them to put their fingers in his wounds. ~

            What hundreds?

            A couple things here. In response to a contention in the OP, there was no “conspiracy” other than inertia. Christians write with a Christian bias, research with a Christian bias; and when their findings do not jive with that bias, alterations occur. Over time, these alterations produce an accounting that cannot be accorded the accreditation of “historical.”

            Another thing, as a prophet – :D – I have an hypothesis for the mechanism behind “miraculous witnessing.” Electromagnetic communication; the transmission of emotional context at the chemical level. The emotional context in this case is the contrast between “what I want to believe” and “what I remember.” Assuming there was “a group of apostles spreading a gospel,” it is most likely that Paul’s “Jesus meme” propagated through this group in such a manner that the memories of yesterday were altered to suit the faith of today.

            And this happens right here right now, unless you’re gonna tell me Rapture is scriptural. :\

      • Korou

        Besides which, the entire ancient world didn’t need to be gullible – just the ones who converted to a new religion when they were told miracle stories by the new preachers. Which is the way religions have always worked. What’s the surprise?

  • flyingvic

    Korou, my friend, I have always admired your ability to discount anything that you disagree with in what others have written while happily leaning towards self-contradiction in what you post yourself. “Yes, people were particularly credulous in those days.” “Besides which, the entire ancient world didn’t need to be gullible.” Way to go, brother!

    • Korou

      Well, flyingvic, you seem a nice guy, although we have only known each other for a few weeks. But those two statements don’t contradict each other, they reinforce each other. People in the ancient world certainly were credulous when it came to the supernatural, and (to make it even easier) you only have to assume that a proportion of them were nonskeptical enough to convert to a new religion.
      Where’s the contradiction?

      • flyingvic

        To retreat from ‘people were particularly credulous’ (a supposition that I don’t particularly accept by comparison to today) to everybody ‘didn’t need to be’ hardly strengthens your case, it seems to me! And I did say ‘leaning towards . . .’!

        • Korou

          (Your moderation is noted and appreciated!)
          Actually, it does strengthen it. The society as a whole was a credulous one, whose usual reaction to miracle stories was to believe them rather than be critical of them; and in order for Christianity to succeed it didn’t even have to convert the whole society but only a part of it – which is what happened.

  • Korou

    From the very first, Christianity was fragmented into different groups, many of which believed widely different things; one piece of evidence we have for this is Paul’s writings, in which he frequently admonished people for deserting the true faith and following other forms of Christianity. Other parts of the New Testament also refer to this phenomenon. And this was before the gospels had even been written; quite clearly the worship of Jesus went in many directions from the outset, until orthodoxy eventually emerged – not by reasoning or agreement, but by force.

  • Korou

    “Nonsense. People knew back then that resurrections and Virgin Births did not happen, and they were just as incredulous.” I’m very glad to hear it! If only people these days were as rational as that. Would you believe it, some people actually think a man came back from the dead.
    Just joking.
    It’s not nonsense at all, I’m afraid. Virgin births were a common part of many religions at the time, as were resurrections. Examples of virgin births are Mithra, the Buddha, Perseus, Athena, etc. etc. Being magically born was a powerful element to add to a myth, so it is no wonder that we find it in the story of Jesus. Resurrections were also very common mythical elements.
    Carrier puts it better than me: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.html
    “…the age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection and remarkable religious acumen. It was an era filled with con artists, gullible believers, martyrs without a cause, and reputed miracles of every variety. In light of this picture, the tales of the Gospels do not seem very remarkable. Even if they were false in every detail, there is no evidence that they would have been disbelieved or rejected as absurd by many people, who at the time had little in the way of education or critical thinking skills.”
    The story of The Apostle Thomas, told seventy years after Jesus died, is hardly reliable seeing as it was told, and probably created, by John, in order to add credibility to the Jesus account. If you want to use it – you’re going to have to provide evidence that it happened outside of John’s gospel.

    “Except that the “dream” appeared to hundreds of people, ate meals with them, spoke to them and invited them to put their fingers in his wounds.”
    You mean that Paul told people that Jesus had appeared to five hundred people, and John said that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people. Did any of those people we are told met Jesus write anything about it, or say anything about it to others who might write it down? It would certainly be good evidence if they did; otherwise, your use of it indicates just what a house of cards this is you’re trying to build. This is a recurring theme we keep coming up against – something is written in the Bible, and so you say it happened and try to build an argument on it.

    “Don’t you think when the Roman soldiers came along they would have said, “Hold on guys. You don’t understand. He didn’t really rise from the dead physically. We were just re-framing a dream.”
    I’m sure that the Roman soldiers would then have said, “Oh, okay, “guys.” Sorry about that. Off you go then, go and stir up more trouble.”
    It suits you to present the possibility of the disciples lying about Jesus in the most simplistic way possible – a strawman argument. People who begin religions often begin by deluding themselves. Imagining that people in a religious movement, following a sudden and severe disappointment, are incapable of creating their own rationalizations, deluding themselves before deluding others, and then acting with great sincerity only shows a lack of understanding of human psychology and religious history.

    “Name one religion that has been formed in this way.”
    Well, since you obviously don’t believe that any other religions in the world were inspired by an actual god or gods, and since you surely don’t believe that they were engineered as a deliberate scam – with exceptions such as Scientology and perhaps Mormonism – I’d have to say just about all of them.

    “False. The disciples of Jesus Christ were pursued, persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed from the beginning.”
    Nonsense. All you’re doing here is citing tradition. We have very little evidence about what happened to the disciples at all; what evidence there is is fragmented and incomplete, and since the only source for it is writings in the bible we don’t need to put much faith in it.
    Which martyrs are you referring to? James and Stephen? Is there evidence that they were killed for their Christian beliefs? That they were offered a chance to recant? That their recantations would have been believed if they had given them?
    And of course, fanatics of religion are usually not deterred by the prospect of martyrdom. Being martyred can be seen as an honour – a chance to do the ultimate service for your god. Really, though, there is so little to go on that talking about what happened to the first Christians is really just speculation.

  • Jason Firestone

    You sir, are no biblical scholar, nor are you an historian, as you have proven in your self refuting exposition about what historians do, and how they work. But before I waste my time with you, I need to know if “thoughtful and intelligent” means “agree with me and my faith position, or I’ll delete your posts.”

    So what is it ? Are you intellectually honest enough to leave up posts that refute every word you say ?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Sure. Anybody can post here. However, this is a comment box, not an internet forum. Very long posts will be deleted. I also ask that debate be conducted in a civil and respectful manner. Profanity, blasphemy and nastiness will be trashed. I must admit, the tone you’re starting out with isn’t too promising…:-)

    • Korou

      I have to agree that you really do not seem to be much of a bible scholar. If you were you would at least have pre-emptied some of the more common responses to the arguments you’re using. Also, a real bible scholar – or any kind of critical historian -wold know better that to take his sources for their word. Historians generally do not believe something was so simply because they are told it was; but checking the facts, looking for the existence of contradictory evidence and critically examining sources seems quite absent here.

  • Thomas

    “The gospels are actually totally unique documents. They are recorded accounts of personal experiences of multiple individuals from within a faith community. They are the written record of the stories told and sermons preached by the immediate followers of Jesus Christ about his life, teaching and death. They were recorded by the faith community that followed the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.”

    In other words, they are complete bullshit. Trying to “re-invent” the gospels as “unique type of documents not subject to the normal criticle analysis”, is about as weak of a argument as you can make for the validity of a document. This is consistent though with the entire christian argument.

  • http://houseofcantor.blogspot.com John Cantor

    As I understand the term “historical,” absolutely not. I say “absolutely” because I’m a prophet; but aside from my insanity, the evidence isn’t there.

  • http://houseofcantor.blogspot.com John Cantor

    As for bias, mine is in being an atheist on an atheist forum, where this atheist goes, [i]come over here and help me with this guy.[/i]

    Cannot refuse a call for aid, no?

    So! Here we go…

    [quote]They are recorded accounts of personal experiences of multiple individuals from within a faith community. They are the written record of the stories told and sermons preached by the immediate followers of Jesus Christ about his life, teaching and death. They were recorded by the faith community that followed the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.[/quote]

    Yet John 8 is a fabrication from the beginning, added by later scribes, according to Ehrman. If one posits, [i]are the gospels historical[/i], and expects a digital answer, that answer can only be [i]no.[/i]

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I think you mean the first eleven verses of John 8. It is true that this pericope is not found in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel, but to say it is a complete fabrication is an extreme view. Most scholars reckon that it is an authentic story about Jesus, but there are various reasons why it was absent from the early manuscripts.

      Catholics are not Bible only Christians like Protestants. We believe that the Scriptures do not stand alone, but are part of the whole of the church life and witness. We are open, therefore to the possibility that an authentic story about Jesus may have survived in some other authentic sources, and found its way into later manuscripts by copyists and editors. We don’t really have a problem with the New Testament being a work of the community over a period of time because for us it’s authenticity doesn’t stand or fall on whether eleven particular verses were in the earliest manuscripts or not.

      Finally, what is amazing is the overall consistency of the early manuscript record. Is this all the critics can find? Just eleven verses out of place? I will be commenting on this in a post on my blog shortly.

      • http://houseofcantor.blogspot.com John Cantor

        Where there’s one, there is two. Where there is eleven, there is many. Before I was aware of Ehrman’s work, I was reading that part of John, and (weirdness alert) there was an image of the death of Archimedes there in my NIV. Of course, it wasn’t really an illustrated version; what I interpreted as was the incorporation of the tale of a known “wizard” into this working of a tale of an unknown wizard, Jesus.

        Consistency I would ascribe to Holy Spirit. I have found that all works of scripture, and many works of philosophy, are written with what the tao calls a “breath of Vacancy.” But having an atheist giving a discorse on the nature of Holy Spirit is prolly beyond the remit of a random commenter. ;)

  • Korou

    It really is most telling, the way Christians will say that five hundred people saw Jesus – and then when you look into it it turns out it was actually Paul writing a letter in which he boasts tha five hundred people saw Jesus – five hundred completely anonymous people who we never hear from or about again.
    It’s really quite symptomatic of the whole approach; conjure your evidence out of the air and say that the positive ness and certainty with which it is written makes it real.

  • Thomas

    There is ample evidence that the gospels are stories written down by people who “believed” the stories and accepted them are truth. This does not make them true. There are only 4 gospels in the bible because these four presented the position well enough for the original biblical authors. Still doesn’t make them true. The four gospels are different enough to see the mythology weaving its way through word of mouth over decades. Though this does not make them untrue, it by no means makes them true. Lack of extra-biblical evidence makes the compelling argument that the whole story of Jesus is a fabrication. Christianity is simply yet another myth created by ignorant humans to give them hope in a world racked with fear of nature. It is time for us to put such fairy tales to bed. We must grow up as a species and move beyond the superstitious beliefs of those that came before us and did not know better. We can know better, and we should start with the honest acceptance that the gospels, then entire bible, is so error ridden that the entire document must be dismissed as pure mythology.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I’m afraid what you’ve written simply isn’t true. There is ample extra-Biblical evidence for the essential veracity of the life, teachings and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I accept that the historicity of his life does not prove the miraculous element and that the miraculous element may make it difficult for non believers to accept the historical veracity, but if you are genuinely interested in discovering the truth about this matter there is plenty of good, objective historical research for you to follow.

      • Korou

        There is a certain amount of archaeological and historical evidence that confirms the existence of the places and people in the bible. But what’s evidence is there, apart from the bible, concerning Jesus himself? Surely you don’t mean Josephus?

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr. But I expect you will have ways of explaining all of them away.

      • Jason Firestone

        Unfortunately there isn’t, as Ehrman has pointed out recently. The fact that Yeshua ben Josef may have existed, or that a sub-sect in Judaism, (the “Way” .. as it is called in Acts), existed for some hundreds of years, (St. John Chrysostom to HIS congregation .. “You must stop going to the synagogue” etc. see his collected sermons), proves absolutely nothing about the claims about him.
        Your dating of Mark is way off, as anyone can see by even just a cursory glance at Wiki. You keep asserting “most scholars this”, and “most scholars that”. What is YOUR source. The only real consensus of scholars is the Jesus Seminar, and even they don’t agree on anything. The Q document is inferred. That is a legitimate historical method. Your friends at Catholic U’s History Dept will be delighted to see that you think it’s impossible for history to come to an accurate conclusion.

        And BTW “salvation” is absent in Mark. Paul invented it. It got grafted onto the cult of the “Way”, with the Jerusalem community kicking and screaming.

        “By common admission, they were written in order to gather converts to a new religion”
        What ? Who told you that ? They were each addressed to a known historical identifiable community, in a specific location, which ALREADY accepted the presuppostions the gospels assumed, (Yahew, God, the structure of the universe, etc etc etc). Who “admitted” what you say ? Exactly. Where ? And they were “proclaimed” only in one place. In church. To communities of already extant believers. They are “proclamational faith documents”… propaganda. No one sat around reading gospels. 5% of the population only was literate.

        And just so I don’t make this too long, since you folks like Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”, maybe check out his other book, “Good and evil”. It shows why the Garden myth is really a later iteration of a Sumerian Chaos myth, (Chaos and Order). It’s not about eating apples. Salvation is rendered impossible, and unnecessary.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          There is more to NT scholarship than ‘a cursory glance at Wiki’. I hope you take the time to read my post today explaining the arguments for Marcan authorship of the second gospel and the reasoning for an early date. Do link to the longer article which gives further reasons. That is–if you’re really interested in the topic.

          • http://CatholicAnswers Jason Firestone

            I see you’re not up to answering the other objections. Obviously Yeshua ben Josef could not predict the future, “Verily I say unto thee this generation shall not pass away … etc”. He was wrong. He was one of many (at least 20 that we know of) apocalyptic preachers, who thought the end was nigh, (and his disciples up to the VERY end, thought he was a political savior..”wilt thou Lord at this time restore the kingdom to Jerusalem”.. Acts 1). The linked article still commits your same “most this”, and “most that”. When and where was the poll done ? By whom ? BTW, the general honorific “son of god” was given to many people, (men) … politicians, generals, holy men, and all round good guys. It was not a specific title, and being called that does not imply a unique relationship.
            Ultimately it doesn’t make one bit of difference when they were written. YOU have admitted they were only used a proclamational liturgical texts. Would they say something the already believers didn’t agree with ? of course not. They are completely “non-historical”, in the way we use that term today. The only term that fits is “proaganda”.
            In your religion faith is a virtue, granted by the Holy Spirit. After, and only after the grace is given the leap is made. If there is no leap, it’s not faith. One has to abandon reason, and make the leap. The only questions are, where and why and when is that leap made. Unfortunately for you, Neuroscience, and Evolutionary Psychology have a lot to say about that, and why some people do it, and some people don’t.

          • Jason Firestone

            Why did the original gospel of Mark end with the empty tomb ? Why was the ending changed, why is the salvation paradigm absent in Mark ?

  • PJ

    Jason,

    You do not whatsoever understand the Gospel of Mark, primarily because you do not understand its relationship to the Old Testament. Marcan soteriology is grounded in the kingship of Christ and the in-breaking of His kingdom: that is, the fulfillment of Israel as the universal congregation, the Church. This theme is also found in St. Paul’s writing, albeit in a more mystical form. There is no discrepancy between the gospels and the Pauline epistles. In fact, they are wonderfully complementary.

    That your ignorance of Mark results from your ignorance of the Old Testament is evident from this comment:

    “Verily I say unto thee this generation shall not pass away … etc”. He was wrong.”

    No, He wasn’t. Jesus was anticipating the destruction of Jerusalem, which was in fact razed some four decades later. He used apocalyptic language typical of the Jewish prophetic tradition, language used to describe the desolation of nations and cities elsewhere in Scripture. His words were most likely specifically a Ezekiel 32, wherein the prophet proclaims:

    “1In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2“Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him:

    “You consider yourself a lion of the nations,
    but you are like a dragon in the seas;
    you burst forth in your rivers,
    trouble the waters with your feet,
    and foul their rivers.
    3 Thus says the Lord God:
    I will throw my net over you
    with a host of many peoples,
    and they will haul you up in my dragnet.
    4 And I will cast you on the ground;
    on the open field I will fling you,
    and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you,
    and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you.
    5 I will strew your flesh upon the mountains
    and fill the valleys with your carcass.a
    6 I will drench the land even to the mountains
    with your flowing blood,
    and the ravines will be full of you.
    7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
    and make their stars dark;
    I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon shall not give its light.
    8 All the bright lights of heaven
    will I make dark over you,
    and put darkness on your land,
    declares the Lord God.”

    Egypt is a type of the enemy of God, for it oppressed Israel and attempted to stymy the will of God. Jerusalem fulfills this type by persecuting the Anointed One. Christ correctly prophesies the destruction that will inevitably befall Israel on account of its rejection of the Messiah.

    If you want to hear someone who is truly knowledgeable on this matter, listen to this series, by Dr. Tim Gray: http://www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/file_index.asp?SeriesID=6715&T1=


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