A big one: Is New Testament history reliable?

A big one: Is New Testament history reliable? April 16, 2016

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany. Some landmarks: 1) The 19th Century pioneer David F. Strauss strips supernaturalism and history from the Gospels while others divorce the “historical Jesus” from the church’s “Christ of faith.” 2) In the 20th Century, Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologized” New Testament makes the actual Jesus virtually unknowable. 3) “Neo-orthodoxy” challenges liberal self-confidence as Europe slides into the Nazi pit. 4) Ernst Kasemann and others launch a chastened post-war “new quest” for Jesus. 5) Though Catholicism begins the 20th Century proclaiming strict conservatism, after the Second Vatican Council influential experts like Raymond Brown and John Meier embrace judicious liberalism.

Chronology is key. For example, scholars’ consensus says the history of church origins in the Book of Acts was written in the 1st Century, but radicals push it much later, then treat the narratives as fiction. On the opposite end, John A.T. Robinson contended that the Gospels must have been written very early because the writers show no awareness of the cataclysmic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70.

However, most agree the Gospels were compiled somewhat later, four to six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, drawing upon oral and, presumably, written traditions. (Paul’s letters came beforehand.) Liberals promote “pseudepigrapha” that the early church barred from the Bible as spurious. But with the possible exception of the “Gospel of Thomas” these came much later than the four Gospels, which remain the chief 1st Century sources. Compared with other ancient writings, there’s a remarkably early and large trove of New Testament manuscripts (with differing details that perplex translators but don’t disturb the over-all picture). Some 50 major New Testament texts and 5,000-plus fragments survive from the 2nd Century onward.

Modern critics apply various criteria to say whether a specific Gospel story was early or late, authentic or embroidered or wholly invented. E.P. Sanders’ 1966 dissertation undercut some rules, showing that during transmission some stories became more Jewish but others less Jewish, some longer but others shorter, etc. One major criterion, “dissimilarity,” accepts items about Jesus that lack parallels in 1st Century Judaism and the early church. That results in suspicion toward non-dissimilar materials and cuts off Jesus from fellow Jews (and the first Christians) whereas recent scholarship insists he was fully Jewish.

Some think discrepancies harm New Testament credibility. Example: Various Gospels say Jesus’ empty tomb was witnessed by one woman, or two, or three, or more than three, and disagree whether #3 was Joanna or Salome. If the Gospel stories were simply invented, why didn’t the writers eliminate such problems? Defenders say this shows the New Testament preserved authentic accounts with disparate details alongside general agreement.

In reacting to these challenges, an older generation of conservatives tended to assume and assert that the Bible must be true by definition because it’s God’s Word. Recent Protestant and Anglican scholars have applied standard historical methods, re-examined two centuries of arguments, and proposed in detail that much New Testament material is plausible (e.g. Britain’s Richard Bauckham, F.F. Bruce, James Dunn, A.E. Harvey, N.T. Wright).

Other debates: Liberals think  higher criticism is the only path to truth; conservatives say if the same techniques used with the New Testament were applied to secular texts this would obliterate much of ancient history. Liberals want to shift the “burden of proof” from doubters onto defenders of Gospel history; conservatives ask why. Liberals may assume scholarship must dismiss the supernatural and the miraculous; conservatives say this rigid limit on evidence is dubious, especially with religious texts. Liberals seek “scientific” results; conservatives think conclusions are inevitably subjective. As Birger Pearson (no right-winger) remarked about the aforementioned Jesus Seminar, “A group of secularized theologians and secular academics went seeking a secular Jesus, and they found him. They think they found him, but, in fact, they created him.”

Birger Gerhardsson’s research said ancient cultures accurately transmitted oral as well as written traditions. If so, and Jesus never uttered all those beloved sayings, what 1st Century genius (or geniuses) originated material that provoked such discussion the next 1,900 years? Would followers forget a memorable teacher’s identity, life story, and words within four to six decades? That’s like current Americans unable to recall the personalities and circumstances with “ask not what your country can do for you,” “I have a dream,” “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” — or “I am not a crook.”

Thus do plausibilities and doubts, questions and answers, provoke fascination with history’s best-seller. (This article could only sketch aspects of an immense topic. Since the question addressed Christianity the answer leaves aside Old Testament complexities.)

 

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