Why Christianity Is Believable: Part Three

One might well object to the foregoing thus: “The New Testament is our only record of these events, and it’s hopelessly biased and therefore unreliable. So we can’t know what really happened.”

Let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious: the New Testament is, indeed, biased. It is strongly biased, in fact: written entirely by devotees of Jesus, each of whom writes according to the tenets of orthodox Christianity (or his writing wouldn’t have been accepted by the early church into the canon–the approved group of scriptures).

But so what? Most (all?) historical writing is biased. Who devotes himself or herself to a careful historical accounting of a subject in which one has no interest and about which one has no strong opinion? Pick among the famous historians of the ages: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Eusebius, Bede, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Beard, von Ranke: they’re all conspicuously biased. Pick your favourite historian today: same deal.

The serious historiographical question is never that of bias. People who don’t know much about history-writing fret about bias, but no historian and no experienced reader of history does. The question instead is whether bias interferes with veracity.

Often it doesn’t, of course. Those who care most about an event are usually (not always) the best reporters of it. Again, who else cares to get the details straight, or to report on it at all (as most Roman and Jewish historians of the time understandably do not report on the life and death of Jesus)? The question is always whether the historian evidently is trying to portray what actually happened (rather than evidently writing flattery or deceit) and whether we have any other grounds to trust his or her word: any sort of corroboration, for example, or other writings of his or hers that we can verify in some way, or the testimony of reliable others to the veracity of the account in question, and so on.

So let’s turn to the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—whom ancient church tradition understands to be the Gospel authors—were not professional historians. According to the early traditions, they came from four different trades: Matthew was a tax collector, Luke was a physician, John was a fisherman—we don’t know what Mark’s trade was. Each was an amateur simply doing his best to serve the first Christians with reliable accounts of the work of Jesus. Leaving aside the question of supernatural inspiration and even whether church tradition is correct about the authorship of what are, in fact, anonymous documents, the four Gospel writers worked the same way all historians work: they collected accounts, both oral and written; reflected on whatever personal experience they might have had with their subject; and set to work writing brief portraits of their Lord for their intended audiences.

But did they write reliable history? To answer this honestly, I need to risk making enemies among my professional friends by asserting that there is no field of contemporary literary or historical study that is as rich, but also as confused, as New Testament scholarship. It seems that one can find a well-credentialed scholar proclaiming virtually any thesis imaginable about this or that part of the New Testament.

There are a variety of reasons for this cacophony of dissenting voices. For one thing, there is no text in western civilization that matters as much as the New Testament: not the Magna Charta, not the Declaration of Independence, not “E = mc2.”  For better or worse, no text has affected our civilization like this collection of small first-century books.  Furthermore, when scholars study the New Testament, ultimate things are at stake. The text itself claims to describe the most fundamental realities: God, the world, humanity, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, morality—who can study it and remain indifferent to its implications?

So while one can recognize the eruditon of many New Testament scholars past and present, it is likely (and, I think, evident) that in at least some cases their expertise has been put at the service of highly personal religious agendas.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in fact, pioneering scholars like Simon and Reimarus and Wellhausen and Baur pursued their studies with openly unorthodox, even anti-orthodox, concerns that skewed their work—even as each of them made important contributions to the understanding of the Bible.  There is no reason to suppose that more recent scholars are so different from their distinguished predecessors.

The current scholarly voices that proclaim the gospels to be suspect as historical sources therefore must be listened to with caution—particularly since many reputable scholars think the gospels are in fact quite reliable.  One must neither accept unquestioningly whatever happens to be the trend of the moment in New Testament scholarship, nor dispense with the whole field entirely.  A critical arm’s-length stance serves one well in any area of human inquiry, and especially in one so contested as this is.

I myself, as a professional historian, have concluded that the gospels are at least basically reliable in their portrayals of Jesus.  They vary from each other in details, even important ones, but their individual and composite portraits of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth seem at least as reliable as any other historical sources we have about the ancient world.

Why do I think so? For one thing, there are, after all, four accounts: not one or two, as is often the case in classical sources. And these accounts agree with each other far more than they seem to disagree.

It seems preposterous, we should pause to observe, to attribute this agreement to some sort of collusion among the four writers.  Quite apart from the silliness of a charge of massive deceit levelled against devotees of a religious master whom everyone agrees taught honesty as a supreme virtue (it would be a different thing, for instance, to suspect collusion among Nazi biographers of Hitler), the very differences among the four gospels to which critics often point indicate that a conspiracy of agreement is highly unlikely.  In other words, it would be a poor conspiracy that so obviously failed to iron out the many differences among the gospels.  Instead, the more sensible explanation for four different, but mutually-reinforcing, accounts is that they are describing the same reality from four different points of view.

Furthermore, they agree with each other far more than they do with the other “gospels” written in the first, second, and later centuries—those attributed to the apostles Thomas and Peter, for example, or the early missionary Barnabas.  The early churches quickly latched onto the four gospels that became part of the New Testament—in church after church across the Empire, as archaeology has shown—while repudiating others as fanciful, even heretical. This widespread agreement on the status of the four gospels over against their “competitors,” an agreement noted by scholars of various stripes, is a phenomenon not to be lightly received—especially in the light of recent excitement over so-called Gnostic and other “gospels.”

The early churches ought to be treated as the best judges of which gospels got the story right. At least a few eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life were still alive at the time of the writing and circulation of the gospels, and these eyewitnesses easily and authoritatively could have refuted, and did refute, any phony accounts.  Even without the validation of eyewitnesses, it remains that the gospels were written within the lifetimes of the first generation after Jesus (that is, between A.D. 50 and 100, with the death of Jesus dated at about 30). Thus the four gospels of the New Testament were accepted as valid by the generation that had been taught the “Jesus traditions” by the apostles themselves. The vast majority of the early churches—and we have records right back to the late first century—broadly and independently agreed that these four were authentic.

So while scholars argue over whether Luke has a particular historical reference correct or whether John is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he never said, we might sensibly consider one thing that New Testament scholars rarely dispute. The early Christians themselves adopted these four as their basic community remembrances of the life of their Lord.  The early churches prized these four accounts because, in their view, they told the truth about Jesus.

Many elements of Jesus’ career upon which all four gospel writers agree are also remarked upon in the still-earlier letters of the apostle Paul, which were written in the 50s and 60s, within thirty or forty years of Jesus’ death.  And these letters—at least the major ones such as Romans and I and II Corinthians—were also widely received early on by most churches as teaching the truth about Jesus. So we in fact have five sources, all of them written within a century of the events they purport to describe, that disagree on details but massively agree on many essential parts of the story of Jesus’ life.  These five sources together constitute an astonishingly rich and reliable resource base for study, especially when compared with any other records from the classical period of Greco-Roman history.  If we simply apply to the New Testament documents the same tests that professional historians normally apply to other ancient accounts, it is clear that we have at least as much reason to trust the gospels as sources of historical data about Jesus as we do to trust any other writer, writing about any other subject, in the ancient Mediterranean world.

(A fine online resource on this matter is an article by Gary Habermas available here.)

Having said all this (!), we still can generously grant to a skeptic all sorts of minor difficulties in the gospel accounts as we move to make the next point in our discussion, namely, that there are historical data that point to the truth of the Christian claim of Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, even if one takes a minimalist approach to the historicity of the gospel accounts, even if one grants for the sake of argument that the gospels contain a large number of relatively minor inaccuracies—or even major mistakes or fabrications!—one runs up against data that are attested in all four gospels and held up as crucial, not incidental, events in the narratives.

Now, grant me just two facts—two data that, let it be clear, are not in themselves miraculous.  Grant me these, and see what else might reasonably follow…


This discussion is adapted from my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press and InterVarsity Press).

0 Responses to “Why Christianity Is Believable: Part Three”

  1. Bob

    Hi John,
    Do you believe that John was written by John the son of Zebedee? Isn’t John’s gospel a theological reflection on Jesus’ teachings? Did Jesus give the long discourses that are in John but are not in the synoptics? It seems like the scholars have an aversion to John’s gospel compared to the other three.

  2. ron cole

    Hi Professor Stackhouse, I did some light reading over the summer, Bart Erhman’s, Misquoting Jesus, and Barrie Wilson’s, How Jesus became
    christian.Interesting and confusing to say the least. I know you’re talking of a historical context here, but I’m wondering about theological influence in the gospels. If Paul’s letters were written in advance of any of the gospels, are we safe to assume the gospels are heavily influenced by Paul’s theology and writing.Is it true that the faith practices of James’ community, differed from Paul’s communities. That infact Paul and James never came to any agreement as has been suggested. That Acts was written after both James and Paul had died to merge the practices together, to iron out any wrinkles in the story. Anyways, I’d love to hear any feedback on such suggestions these authors make.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Brother Bob, I’m pretty conservative when it comes to authorship questions in the New Testament. And you’re right, the Gospel according to John has been given a pretty hard time for a couple of centuries’ of Biblical scholarship. But for the last decade or so, a number of scholars have been rehabilitating its reliability, so the winds seem to be changing.

    Brother Ron, I know nothing of Barrie Wilson, but “Jesus becoming Christian” is a trope as old as Schleiermacher, if not reaching back to the eighteenth century rationalists. Yawn.

    As for Professor Erhman, he’s a trouble-maker. I say that partly tongue-in-cheek, since I don’t know him personally, but he has a good reputation for his earlier work as a Biblical scholar. It’s pretty obvious, however, that he has devoted the last few years of his career to muckraking and proselytizing (he’s an ex-evangelical) without posing much of a serious challenge to orthodox Christian interpretations of the New Testament nor to the geneaology of the canon construed in a pretty traditional way.

    It isn’t so much that the gospels are influenced by Paul’s teaching in any sinister way so much as Paul’s teaching was received by the early church as consistent with what they had already received via other sources as the truth about, and from, Jesus. So of course all Christians later than Paul are “influenced” in some way by Paul’s teaching–but why construe that as something other than Christ’s teaching? The early church didn’t–however much critics two millennia after the fact like to do so.

    As for the Paul-James “split,” it might appear to be significant if you approach it with certain presuppositions of “radical diversity” and the like. But it seems like no split at all if you presuppose that these were Christian teachers of the same Jesus tradition who actually had fraternal contact with each other.

    (In the nineteenth century, it was Peter and Paul who were supposed to have been opposed, and John who ironed out the differences. Nothing new under the sun, etc.)

    So I confess that I haven’t paid much attention to Professor Ehrman’s work particularly since his book on the problem of evil, about which I have some particular competence, was so disappointing.

  4. Ranger

    Let me begin by saying that I think it’s good to think outside the box about our faith and give it a good challenge every now and again. Intellectual honesty is critical to a robust Christian faith, so I admire this pursuit in your reading of the books you mentioned.

    I’ve read much of what Ehrman has written (and listened to some of his lectures), think he has some interesting points when speaking in his field (New Testament Textual Criticism), but offer little new to the debate. His “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” and its responses by Fee were simply rehashings of old discussions (see Bauer/Lightfoot for the identical arguments recast in 19th century language).

    Unfortunately, he shows a surprising ignorance of recent scholarship when he steps outside of his particular field. An example of this would be “Jesus, Interrupted” and his claims about New Testmaent theology. This is only more obvious in his one attempt at waxing metaphysical (God’s Problem), which I find completely unsatisfying for those studying in biblical theodicy.

    At the same time, I enjoy Ehrman’s books because he’s a very good communicator and does a good job of weaving his personal story throughout his arguments. That’s why his writings are so successful and also why I think the most effective written response to “Misquoting Jesus” was the book “Lost in Transmission?” by Nicholas Perrin. Perrin is just as respected among NT scholars, but has a radically different personal story. He moved from an atheist/agnostic upbrining to Buddhism to Christianity during his college and graduate/doctoral years and weaves that story into his critical assessment of Ehrman’s claims.

    As for Wilson, (and I hate to be so critical) but I’m not impressed with his book in the least. I can’t imagine him having written a similar academic book knowing that it would have then been submitted to peer review and the majority of his comments are theories only appealing to the very fringe of liberal scholarship. As such, Wilson’s book was most influential among those looking to “debunk” Christianity and had little influence elsewhere.

    As you know from reading the book, many of his theses hang on speculative suggestions which he repeats endlessly as if repetition will make the speculation more concrete. I wasn’t impressed. For a more thorough (and scholarly) look at unity and diversity in early Christianity, I’d suggest Paul Barnett’s 3-volume series which begins with “The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years.”

    In terms of John, one of the largest challenges to its reliability was the traditional assumption that the author was the son of Zebedee, a disciple from Galilee. Many still hold this view, but it brings some interesting questions with it.

    1. How come John seems more concerned with the events around Jerusalem, and ignores much of what occurred in Galilee (outside of a few events) if this is his personal perspective?

    2. How come John seems to know the events that center around Mary, Martha and Lazarus in such detail, whereas the Synoptic gospels seem more concerned about the events pertaining to the disciples from Galilee?

    3. Why does John seem to be even more Jewish in terms of dates, locales, etc. than the Galileean focused Synoptic gospels?

    These questions are age old, but some recent mainstream and evangelical scholarship has asked what if this assumption about the Galileean author is the problem and the gospel actually tells the story from the perspective of a Jerusalem disciple (or possibly one from Bethany).

    Thus, Ben Witherington has argued that the gospel is reliable and may actually have been written by Lazarus (you’ll have to read his fine work for all of the arguments). Richard Bauckham has argued that the author was part of a different core group of Jesus’ followers from Jerusalem and was writing at the end of his life to tell the events that he experienced. Craig Blomberg (in his book on the reliability of John) has done in-depth studies into the Jewish world of Jerusalem during second temple Judaism to make the case that John is very reliable from a Jewish perspective.

    I hope this brief comment helps give a different perspective to the two books you mentioned and may suggest some alternative takes on the questions they pose.

  5. ron cole

    Professor Stackhouse and Ranger, thank you so much for your insight, and recommendations. I will certainly follow up, and look forward to reading them. I’m not a scholar, just a follower with a passion to understand more about the early beginnings of Christianity.I just find it interesting have sat in the pews for many years getting the trickle down version from the pulpit, that we don’t seem to get the real picture. That the story isn’t as neatly put together as it’s preached. We have this nicely packaged seemly chronological version, that seems seamless, when really it’s not. Maybe the Paul-James split might have been the first theological realignment of the church, in which Paul’s more theological dominant world view won the day. Like I say, I’m not bothered by the controversy I find in our faith story. It just helps me realize, although messy…it is still true.

  6. mariam

    Well, I tried your argument on my 19 yr old son who was discussing a recent class debate on the merits (but mostly demerits:) of religion. We got into the historical accuracy or not of the Bible, what is fable, what is myth, what is truth etc. I tried your “four separate historical accounts which essentially agree on an event and which as been accepted as truthful by millions of people for centuries, which is more that a lot of historical accounts have going for them” and he countered as I knew he would: the 4 “separate” accounts are not really that separate, they are “decades after the fact” accounts from people who have an agenda and they describe some events that no reasonable person should expect to be true. We accept certain things in history to be factual because there is physical evidence that remains, in addition to a continuous “story”. History is written by the winners but we can be pretty sure that there really was a Roman empire, that it really fell, that Copernicus and Galileo really did change the way we think about Earth’s place in the universe, etc. We also have many historical accounts about saints performing a variety of weird and wonderful miracles, sometimes accounts from numerous sources, sometimes claiming that many, many people witnessed the miracle. We tend to take these stories with a grain of salt – I bet even you do. Why? Because they are written by people with an agenda and describe events that most reasonable people who not believe possible. The fact that Jesus existed seems to be verified by a couple of other historians, but no non-devotees verify the supernatural events describes in the Gospels and in Acts.

    Thank you for this series, BTW. I do not know whether the resurrection of Christ and other miracles described in the Gospels happened or not. I would like to believe and I accept it is possible. I accept “the truth” of the Gospels, whether or not I believe they are historically or literally accurate. Borg was actually my re-introduction to Christianity and he removed a lot of the barriers that had previously made it impossible for me to be a Christian. However, I am not interested, as he seems to be, in disproving the supernatural events of the Scriptures. I accept them as part of the Christian package, and I believe in the deeper truth they represent whether they literally happened or are metaphorical.

  7. Erasmus

    “There are, after all, four accounts: not one or two, as is often the case in classical sources. And these accounts agree with each other far more than they seem to disagree.”

    Perhaps so. But in the fourth account many historians who have no dogma to tout find that what’s of historical value adds little to what’s to be found in Mark and Luke. And eighty percent of Mark’s verses are paralleled in Matthew, sixty-five percent in Luke. Over two hundred verses, as Goodacre and Sanders would have it, are drawn by Luke from Matthew. We have Mark, we have the two hundred twenty or so verses. We have a few strands of material peculiar to Matthew and Luke. But the vaunted four sources are largely two: Mark and the portions of Matthew drawn on by Luke.

    Further, there are substantial discrepancies between the synoptics, some at critical junctures. Did Jesus die satisfied and serene (Luke) or anguished and despairing (Mark)? Were the first appearances to two disciples on the road to Emmaus or to Mary Magdalene (and to Mary?)? Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples–in Galilee or in Jerusalem? Did the ascension occur at Bethany, from a room in Jerusalem, at Mount Olivet?
 At places, the multiplicity of sources does not confirm but instead confounds.

    “We might sensibly consider one thing that New Testament scholars rarely dispute. The early Christians themselves adopted these four as their basic community remembrances of the life of their Lord.  The early churches prized these four accounts because, in their view, they told the truth about Jesus.”

    This counts as evidence of belief, but nothing more. That early Christians believed what they believed proves the early followers of Jesus were followers of Jesus. That they held the beliefs doesn’t count as evidence that the beliefs were true, any more than the fact that the other ninety-nine point nine percent of inhabitants of the empire believed they were false counts as evidence they were false. That this goes undisputed is because it’s neither here nor there, it signifies nothing.

  8. John Stackhouse

    Mariam, I think your 19-year-old is perhaps not in a state to consider these matters seriously. For one thing, he talks about the gospels being written “decades after the events” (which is true) as if that automatically invalidates them (which is false–as any serious student of such literature would attest). He also says, more tellingly, that “no reasonable person” should accept the (miraculous) events of the gospel stories, but millions of patently reasonable people did and do. So how does he account for that fact?

    Indeed, that’s the fundamental question of my post: How does one adequately account (not just “account,” but ADEQUATELY account) for the belief of so many apparently reasonable people in THIS SORT OF BELIEF–not just any odd, religious tenet?

    Thus I turn to “Erasmus” (boy, there’s a pretty ambitious moniker to live up to): I’m afraid you’re not paying sufficient attention to what I’ve written. Of course merely holding beliefs doesn’t say anything about the truth content. Of course lots of people holding beliefs (say, lots of children at any one time believing in Santa Claus) says nothing about the truth content. That’s not what I’m arguing.

    Please read these posts again and consider the main point I am indeed making: Why would THESE sorts of people become convinced of THESE sorts of beliefs and thus undertake THESE sorts of life changes: cognitively, yes, but also practically, to the rupture and rearrangement of their lives and their social relationships (including familial and ethnic bonds), even risking (and in some cases giving) their lives?

    The particular beliefs in question just aren’t the same as beliefs of other religions or cults or whatever. That’s my point. People (first-century Jews) entirely NOT inclined to believe in a single resurrection of a disgraced rabbi who claimed prerogatives belonging only to Yahweh and Yahweh’s Messiah come to proclaim that Jesus is indeed both Lord (=Yahweh) and Christ (=Messiah). One has to bore down into the specifics of this case, as I have tried to do even within the severe constraints of a weblog, to see what I am trying to say.

    Waving one’s hand in casual dismissal of this argument as if it is stupidly circular won’t do. Please: try understanding it better.

  9. James

    It’s beyond doubt that beliefs in miraculous cures were widespread in Palestine and the wider Roman world. Were they not, for one thing, Jesus’ ministry would not have been as successful as i was. If credulity extends to cures, it would scarcely be surprising if it extended to various sorts of resurrection as well. The gospels report that Jesus raised individuals from the dead.

    We know form everyday experience that people today believe that they have had encounters with the dead. I believe the evidence is pretty strong that Mary Magdalene had such an encounter with Jesus after his death. I also believe that Peter was not only grief struck but remorseful and burdened with guilt. And I believe that Paul, months or years after Jesus’ death, encountered the risen Jesus in a manner he does not distinguish from appearances in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death.

    What beliefs held by all first-century Jews renders it impossible that a few of them snared by Jesus’ extraordinary faith and hope might not have come to believe he was risen indeed, and that they had seen him?


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