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How Do we Know the Gospels are Historical?

Gospels

Among Catholics and atheists, is easy to exchange convinced assertions: “The gospels are 100% God’s holy Word and every bit is historically accurate!” or “The gospels are fairy tales!” However there is a discipline called “Biblical scholarship” in which scholars do some very interesting work determining just which parts of the gospels they think are reliable and which they think are not. Their conclusions are, of course, debated. That’s what scholars do. Their work is fascinating and it is worth taking some time to look at just a smidgen of their methodology and conclusions.

Bible scholars are most interested in trying to determine whether the original gospels record eyewitness accounts, and whether those original versions have been transmitted accurately. To do this scholars consider several factors: 1) authorship and date of composition, 2) intention and genre, 3) gospel sources and oral tradition, 4) textual criticism, 5) historical authenticity of specific sayings and narrative events.

One of the difficult aspects for modern people to understand is just what kind of document the gospels are. Everyone can admit that they are not written as purely historical documents, but neither are they simply fabulous fables, myths, or fairy tales. In continuity with the Old Testament, and consistent with their Jewish origins, we have documents which are presented as history and have plenty of historically verifiable details, but which also have supernatural and otherworldly elements to them. Thus:

"The genre of the gospels is essential in understanding the intentions of the authors regarding the historical value of the texts. New Testament scholar Graham Stanton states that 'the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies.' Charles H. Talbert agrees that the gospels should be grouped with the Graeco-Roman biographies, but adds that such biographies included an element of mythology, and that the synoptic gospels also included elements of mythology. E.P. Sanders states that 'these Gospels were written with the intention of glorifying Jesus and are not strictly biographical in nature.' Ingrid Maisch and Anton Vögtle writing for Karl Rahner in his encyclopedia of theological terms indicate that that the gospels were written primarily as theological, not historical items. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis notes that 'we must conclude, then, that the genre of the Gospel is not that of pure ‘history’; but neither is it that of myth, fairy tale, or legend. In fact, ‘gospel’ constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising novelty in the literature of the ancient world.'"

Historians therefore allow for the fact that these are essentially historical documents with what they call “mythological” elements woven into them. Whether the miracles or “the mythological elements” happened as the gospels report is open to debate. Believers accept the possibility of the miraculous. Non-believers do not. In each case the bias will affect the conclusion, however it must be said that one who believes miracles are possible is immediately more open-minded than one who rules that they are impossible. The believer is open therefore to more possibilities than the non-believer who, a priori, rules miracles out entirely.

What many people miss, because of a secular or a scientific bias (or both), is that this sort of story is common to humanity everywhere. The supernatural or “mythological” is woven into the lives and stories of many individuals, families, and cultures. Whether it is a near death experience, or a paranormal experience of some kind, or a more ordinary faith experience, people re-tell the remarkable things which have happened to them in ordinary life. Aunt Sally tells how she was healed at the summer camp revival meeting by Jesus Christ himself or Cousin Jimmy tells how he was miraculously preserved from falling headlong into a pot of acid by his guardian angel.

One does not have to accept that Aunt Sally was miraculously healed by Jesus to accept that she really did go to the revival meeting led by Pastor Billy Bob at the Hosannah Camp Meeting in Houndstooth, North Carolina on August third and that she went in feeling sick and came out feeling better. One does not have to accept the miraculous element of the story to acknowledge that Cousin Jimmy really did almost fall into a pot of acid, and that two workmates saw it happen at Florsheim Fertilizer Plant in Boondock Missouri on January 27 at 3:00 in the afternoon. In other words, it is reasonable to attempt to sift out what is verifiable and provable from a reported story which, by its nature, is subjective and perceived as supernatural and therefore not verifiable with ordinary means of enquiry.

This is what scholars quite sensibly do when confronted with the gospel accounts. The scholarship on the questions of authorship, date, sources, and genre is a scholarly industry in itself, but the topic for this post is the various tools used to help determine whether particular sayings or events from the recorded gospel accounts are authentic.

There are different scholarly means used to analyze the text. The first tool scholars use is called ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. This says if something Jesus did or said clashed with the Jewish religion of his day (and therefore the religion of the first Christians) then it is more likely to be authentic. There are many examples of this. Indeed the whole gospel story can be seen as subversive to the existing Jewish religion. However, some specific examples would be Jesus talking alone to the woman at the well in Samaria, or the story of the Good Samaritan, or Jesus and his disciples breaking the Sabbath rules, or Jesus sharing the hospitality of sinners, or standing the Ten Commandments on their head with his Sermon on the Mount.

Second, the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ says that if a saying or event was embarrassing to the memory of Jesus or the apostles it is more likely to be authentic. So Jesus losing his temper, clearing out the temple ,or calling a woman a ‘dog’ are all examples. The apostles being proud, vain, and doubting is another. So the story of Jesus being baptized by John would be authentic because it shows Jesus to be subordinate to John. Other examples include the supposed illegitimacy of Jesus’ birth and the most obvious—his execution as a criminal.

Third, the ‘criterion of multiple attestation’ says that “when two or more independent sources present similar or consistent accounts, it is more likely that the accounts are accurate reports of events or that they are reporting a tradition which pre-dates the sources themselves.” This is often used to note that the four gospels attest to most of the same events, but that Paul’s epistles often attest to these events as well, as do the writings of the early church, and to a limited degree non-Christian ancient writings.

Fourth, the ‘criterion of cultural and historical congruency’ says that a source is less credible if the account contradicts known historical facts, or if it conflicts with cultural practices common in the period in question. Conversely, if the account matches up with the other known facts it is more likely to be authentic. So the gospel stories are evaluated to see if they match with the known historical facts, the geography, archeological findings, cultural customs, and details etc.

It should be noted that the results of these methods of textual analysis are not always unanimously in favor of the historicity of the gospels. However, the results are significantly satisfactory for professional historians and Biblical scholars working together to show that the gospels are, for the most part, historically reliable documents.

One of the aspects of this analysis most often overlooked is the cross-referencing between the epistles of St. Paul and the gospels. Scholars are virtually unanimous in recognizing most of the Pauline epistles to be written before his death, which occured during the Neronian persecutions in the year 65. While not personally an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, the Book of Acts shows that he knew the other apostles and indeed went to them for instruction and validation of his ministry. Most importantly, Paul's epistles are not written as gospels with the intention to glorify Jesus and make converts. They are letters to the early Christian communities scattered around the Roman Empire. They are therefore very accurate reflections of the people in those early communities and are accurate records of the beliefs of those early communities.

In his epistles, Paul quotes early Christian creeds that obviously pre-date his own writing. Scholars believe these creeds date to within a few years of Jesus’ death and developed in the early Christian communities. These texts are therefore an important and unique source for the study of early Christianity. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 reads:  “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The language formulations are different from Paul’s own and he is therefore quoting a mini-creed that is even earlier than his own writings, making it pre-65 AD. The antiquity of the creed has been located by many Biblical scholars to less than a decade after Jesus’ death, originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community.

Concerning this creed, New Testament scholar Hans Von Campenhausen says, “This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text,” and  A. M. Hunter writes, “The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability.”

This is just one of about half a dozen early creeds embedded in the writings of Paul. Here are some others:

  • 1 John 4:2: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
  • Romans 1:3: “Regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • 1 Timothy 3:16: “He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”

Why does this matter? What these early Christian creeds show is that the so-called mythological elements of the gospels (angels, resurrection, ascension into heaven, Son of God) were not later additions and accretions to the tradition, but were part of the beliefs about Jesus from the very earliest days, beliefs that the gospels attest to, Paul affirms, and Christians today still hold.
 
 
Originally posted at Standing on My Head. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. He was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and then in 1995, he and his family were received into the Catholic Church. For the next ten years he worked as a freelance writer, contributing to more than fifty magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Fr. Dwight is the author of many books including The Quest for the Creed (Crossroads, 2012); More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith (Ignatius, 2010); and Catholicism Pure and Simple (Stauffer Books, 2012). Connect with his website DwightLongenecker.com, or his Patheos blog, Standing On My Heard.

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  • David Nickol

    However, the results are significantly satisfactory for professional historians and Biblical scholars working together to show that the gospels are, for the most part, historically reliable documents.

    This seems to me fairly broad and unsubstantiated claim. I have no doubt that there is historical material in the Gospels, but I think that is far different from saying "that the gospels are, for the most part, historically reliable documents." I don't think anyone would claim the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are even remotely historical. A great deal of the Gospels consists of material passed down by word of mouth and shaped by that process. Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source and feel free to rearrange and modify his Gospel. The Gospel of John is puzzling in that it seems to have many historical details right but consists a great deal of theologizing and gives us a Jesus who speaks of himself in a way not found in the other Gospels.

    So while there is historical material in the Gospels, exactly what is historical and what is not is often difficult to discern. And of course for non-Christians, there is not historical "proof" of anything.

    • Timothy Reid

      Your account of the writing of the Gospels is accurate.
      What I would ask is why should anyone accept written accounts about Socrates or the Egyptian pharaohs? If we apply that level of skepticism and doubt to every bit of historical writing about every figure and event.....we would call all of ancient history into doubt.
      The New Testament is not insignificant (27 texts) plus other writings like the Didache and other non-Biblical Roman and Jewish sources attest to the existence of a historical Jesus.

      • David Nickol

        What I would ask is why should anyone accept written accounts about Socrates or the Egyptian pharaohs? If we apply that level of skepticism and doubt to every bit of historical writing about every figure and event.....we would call all of ancient history into doubt.

        I recently finished reading Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome and I would say a tremendous amount of what Bauer did was read between the lines of ancient documents. The official accounts of various kings were never taken at face value. Often when there were such things as battles, she had the accounts of the winning and the losing kings and compared them to each other to attempt to determine whether the "winning" forces had actually won or just "declared victory," and whether the losing side was minimizing or rationalizing (or simply omitting references to) their defeat. There was a theme running through some of the major conquests, in which the conquerer argued to everyone (including those he conquered) that he was actually the "liberator."

        One of the main problems with the Gospels and the New Testament in general is that there are no independent sources to compare it to.

        Unlike the Egyptian pharaohs, Jesus didn't build any monuments to himself, leave any inscriptions, make any alliances with third parties who kept their own records, and so on.

        I certainly don't doubt the existence of the historical Jesus, but there is certainly much more evidence of what someone like Julius Caesar said and did than what Jesus said and did. It only stands to reason that there would be many more official records about pharaohs, kings, major philosophers, and so on than there were about Jesus who was of no importance except during his public ministry, who wrote nothing, and who had far more followers after his death than during his life.

        • Ben Posin

          Fantastic post! Of course, there are some events described in the gospels that one might have expected to garner attention and third party accounts had they happened, such as when in Matthew a multitude of people rise from the dead and go wander about town encountering people. That sort of thing would at the least make the Inquirer today.

        • Medequcb68

          What is the difference between inscriptions written on stones and those written on papers? The pharaohs did not write them nor did Jesus but why is the former more believable than the latter?

          • David Nickol

            What is the difference between inscriptions written on stones and those written on papers?

            I wasn't exactly saying it made a difference what inscriptions were written on, but of course inscriptions written on stones about pharaohs were generally written at the behest of pharaohs when they were alive. Not only are they contemporaneous records, but they are the originals. We do not have any contemporaneous records about Jesus (nothing written during his lifetime either by him or about him). We have copies of some documents written within about 30 years of when Jesus died, but they are written by Paul, who never met the living Jesus. And we have only copies, no originals.

            Basically what I was saying is that for many other historical figures, we have contemporaneous records from multiple sources. We have nothing of the kind for Jesus. If there were Roman records and/or records of the Sanhedrin in addition to the New Testament documents, nobody would be questioning the existence of Jesus. I personally believe there is a solid case not just for his existence but also for the New Testament giving us significant information about him. I suppose I would say there is a great deal of evidence for his existence, but not historical proof.

      • Ignorant Amos

        What I would ask is why should anyone accept written accounts about Socrates or the Egyptian pharaohs?

        The difference is out there for those that choose to look.

        http://www.freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Socrates_vs_Jesus

        It isn't just about written accounts either.

        • Timothy Reid

          I read it. It told me nothing that I did not already know (except for a few things about Socrates). The article you linked did make a bad assumption. It said that as far as Paul was concerned, Jesus had no life. That is not so. It mentioned the institution narrative from 1 Corinthians as if it were a vague and obscure reference that couldn't possibly be a real event. Why not?
          Paul also emphasizes that to be a part of the Christian community, you have to believe in the fact that Jesus was crucified and did rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Why would a community keep growing and growing if Paul and a few others were the only people who believed that the man was real? How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally?
          For 300 years these pranksters got away with it while Rome had wave after wave of persecution and STILL the pagan Romans were duped?
          Many Roman historians didn't like Christians at all, but not one of them EVER suggested that these perverted, un-patriotic, stubborn, atheists were making up the man of Jesus. Wouldn't that be an easy way to dismiss them and take the air out of their tires as they tried to take Christianity to all corners of the Empire.
          I just don't buy this whole "Jesus was a hoax" fad.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Paul also emphasizes that to be a part of the Christian community, you have to believe in the fact that Jesus was crucified and did rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Why would a community keep growing and growing if Paul and a few others were the only people who believed that the man was real? How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally?

            Can you not see anything wrong with that?

            Why would a community keep growing and growing if Mohammed was the only person that believed Allah was real? How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally?

            Why would a community keep growing and growing if Joseph Smith was the only person that believed Moroni was real? How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally?

            Why would a community keep growing and growing if L Ron Hubbard was the only person that believed Xenu was real? How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally?

            Insert belief system as required.

            Your premise relies on the integrity of the author. Could Paul have been lying?

            I just don't buy this whole "Jesus was a hoax" fad.

            It matters not whether you buy it or not, that's your incredulity. What matters is the evidence, and with the evidence, or should I say, lack thereof, the best anyone can assert is agnosticism on the subject.

            As for it being a fad...the onetime assertion that the Exodus story was an ahistorical fad followed by cranks has been turned over to the extent that even Rabbi's agree that the story is untenable.

          • Timothy Reid

            Do you not like the tenants of forgiveness, mercy, love, compassion and caring that Christianity and the Bible gave rise to or do you think that the arcane traditions that ancient peoples adhered to are the same mindset that all modern Christians all adhere to?

          • Max Driffill

            Do you think forgiveness, mercy, love, compassion, and caring were non-existent prior to Christianity? If you do, your grasp of history is somewhat more than just a little shaky.

          • Doug Shaver

            "How could this hoax have worked so completely and totally? "

            It probably couldn't, but I don't think it was a hoax. I think it was a mistake. Mistake beliefs about history can be extremely tenacious, even when evidence of the truth is overwhelming and readily available.

          • Max Driffill

            Evidence of this can be seen in the beliefs, held tenaciously in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of Mormons. They believe a great many things about the history of the US that are easily demonstrated to be untrue. In fact this appears to be true where and when ever we look at the formative processes of religion. I'm not sure why we should expect it to be any different with Christianity.

    • Steven Dillon

      Another problem is that Biblical scholars typically get 0 training in historical methodology. So, they've just sort of made their own methods up, and they have often contradicted each other.

      I agree with Richard Carrier's Proving History and Aviezer Tucker's Our Knowledge of the Past that all correct inductive reasoning is based on Bayes' theorem, and thus that Biblical scholars ought to learn Bayesianism. But, Bayes' would require *substantial* revisions to conclusions drawn in Biblical scholarship.

      • "Another problem is that Biblical scholars typically get 0 training in historical methodology. So, they've just sort of made their own methods up, and they have often contradicted each other."

        Do you have any evidence for such a sweeping generalization? Perhaps you can provide some examples of curricula from top biblical history programs?

        The credentialed biblical historians I know are all well-versed in historical methodology and took multiple courses in that discipline during their graduate studies.

        Therefore, for the sake of fruitful dialogue, I ask that you not slam entire groups of people with such broad mischaracterizations.

        • Steven Dillon

          I'll provide some quotations when I get home, the lack of training in graduate school is one of the problems outlined by Mike Licona in The Resurrection: A New Historiographical Approach, and the contradictory methods constructed by these scholars is corroborated by guys like Carrier, Theissen and Allison.

        • Steven Dillon

          Richard Carrier provides the following two citations on p. 11 of his Proving History:

          "There are no reliable criteria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition." - Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. pp. 116-17.

          "these criteria have not led to any uniformity of result, or any more uniformity than would have been the case had we never heard of them." - Dale Allison, in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, eds. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids: MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008. pp. 79-95 (citing p. 79).

          Mike Licona says:

          "How many [Biblical scholars] have completed so much as a single undergraduate course pertaining to how to investigate the past?" ... "A search through the catalogues of courses and degree requirements revealed that few to no courses in the philosophy of history and contemporary historical method were offered by the departments of religion and philosophy at the eight Ivy League institutions for 2007 fall semester and 2008 spring and fall semesters. The only clear case is a Ph.D. seminar offfered by Princeton Theological Seminary." - Licona, Michael, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. 2010, IVP. p. 19

          I'd be curious to see if this has changed for the better.

          "The bewildering plurality in biblical studies (and, more broadly, in religious studies) has led some to consider whether there remains a unified academic discipline, or whether the fragmentation is terminal." - Humphrey, E.M. And I Turned to See the Voice: The Rhetoric of Vision in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2007. p. 24

          I could keep citing, but I think this conveys the jist of the problem.

      • David Nickol

        Another problem is that Biblical scholars typically get 0 training in historical methodology.

        I'm with Brandon on this one. I think we'd have to define "biblical scholars," but the the people who come to my mind (Raymond Brown, James D. G. Dunn, Joseph Fitzmyer, Larry Hurtado, John P. Meier, etc.) all know their stuff.

        I do not know what to make of Richard Carrier, and since we just had a post about argument from authority, I had better be careful, but he seems to have a small following, all of whom seem be thrilled with his conclusions and as a consequence, enamored of his method. Why he chose to attack Bart Ehrman so ferociously and so personally is a mystery to me.

        • Sqrat

          Why he chose to attack Bart Ehrman so ferociously and so personally is a mystery to me.

          It's because , according to Carrier, Ehrman wrote a book asserting the existence of an actual, historical Jesus that was mostly based on an appeal to authority -- "Most Biblical scholars think that Jesus actually existed, therefore it's probably the case that Jesus actually existed." I can't speak to the accuracy of Carrier's claim, since I haven't myself read Ehrman's book, but if it's true, then Carrier's beef would be legitimate.

          It should be noted that Carrier also said that Ehrman's other books are good stuff and well worth reading.

          • Ignorant Amos

            I've been following the whole debacle myself from day one. I read Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" and I've read the rebuttle, "Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth" by Richard Carrier Ph.D., D.M. Murdock, René Salm and Earl Doherty.

            I've read a number of Ehrman's other works, the ones directed at the layperson, and enjoyed his scholarship. That is why I was disappointed at his slapdash amateur approach to "DJE?". Everyone, including Carrier, was expecting a half decent job of defending the historical Jesus, it was anything but. Which made it an easy job to refute.

            I've also read a number of Carrier's works also.

            Ehrman began the ad hom attacks in a piece he did for the HuffPo...he didn't relent in his book. With all the inaccurate scholarship, appeals to authority, lies, contradiction and made up assertions in "DJE?", quite frankly, it was embarrassing.

            The whole thing can be read starting here.. http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/667

            ...for those that might be interested.

          • Sqrat

            IA:

            Thanks for confirming that Carrier seems to have a reasonable complaint against Ehrman. I own three of Ehrman's other "pop" books and thought they were pretty decent (except for the lack of indexing, which is a real pain).

          • Ignorant Amos

            I was a champion of Ehrman until "DJE?", I was looking forward to him putting the issue to bed once and for all. His inability to do so and his concentrated attack on the mythicists persona, rather than their arguments, was very disappointing. As a result, I've been reading everything I can get my hands on, and it doesn't look good for the historicists, at least with what is currently out there...of course new evidence is always a possibility.

          • Sqrat

            I confess to not having looked into it very deeply, although it is certainly a very interesting historical question. To the extent that I have a bias, it is towards the historicists and against the mythicists. That's because, if the historicists are correct, it seems to me to be easier to explain the origins of Christianity than if the mythicists are correct. If you take the mythicist position, then you have to come up with an entirely different account for the origins of Christianity than the usual one (that there was a real guy named Jesus whose followers carried on after his death).

            You say that you've been reading everything you can get your hands on. Based on what you have read, have the mythicists made a serious attempt at the task of providing an alternate explanation of the origins of Christianity, or have they mainly been concentrated up to this point on casting doubt on the existence of a historical Jesus?

            The one thing I do take away from the mythicist case is the reminder that basically all of our knowledge of the historical Jesus (if he existed) comes from members of the cult of Jesus, and therefore that none of it is necessarily very trustworthy. However, I don't equate "not trustworthy" with "absolutely false."

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Basically all of our knowledge of the historical Jesus (if he existed)
            comes from members of the cult of Jesus, and therefore that none of it
            is necessarily very trustworthy.

            I am a member of the cult of Jesus and this membership requires me to tell the truth to the best of my ability even if it costs me my life.

          • Sqrat

            According to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts, if you had been a member of the cult of Jesus in its earliest days, your membership would have required you to turn over every penny you had to your name to the cult, or that could cost you your life.

            As to whether your membership in the cult of Jesus always requires you to tell the truth to the best of your ability, here's an interesting ethical question for you: Are you required to tell the truth to the best of your ability even if doing so would cost someone else his or her life?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Read Acts 5: 1-11. It is a bizarre story, but nobody was required to turn over anything.

            As to your second paragraph, my personal opinion is no, but I think it is an open question.

          • Sqrat

            It's a bizarre story in which two members of a religious cult who had failed to turn over all of their money to the cult were said to have dropped dead in the presence of the cult leader.

            So would you, personally, lie if you thought that the lie might save someone's life?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            They *claimed* to have donated all the money from the sale of a piece of land to the Church, but they did not.

            Your question is way too broad. Is the person innocent or guilty? Is it under oath or to a drug-crazed psychopath?

          • Sqrat

            Right, to be a member of the cult, it appears you had to turn over all of your money to the cult. These two cult members hadn't done so. According to the story, they lied about having turned over all of their money. Why did they lie? Were cult members required to swear an oath that they had turned over all of their money? I can't say.

            Did anything like this event actually even occur? Again, I can't say -- perhaps people were joining the cult without turning over the money they promised to turn over, so a story was made up about what could happen to you if you didn't. Or perhaps the "criterion of embarrassment" mentioned by Longenecker in the article above applies here and the cult wouldn't have reported the deaths of two cult members in the presence of the cult leader in such suspicious circumstance if there were nothing at all to the story.

            The one thing I'm not inclined to question is the likelihood that, in the earliest Church, you had to turn over all of your money to the cult, or you couldn't be a member.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            To me, your frame of mind is too ugly for me to want to engage with further on this topic.

          • Sqrat

            Careful, your refusal to consider certain non-miraculous possibilities in this case could lead to the charge that you are close-minded.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Nah....he's just off to Croydon.

          • Ignorant Amos

            I confess to not having looked into it very deeply, although it is certainly a very interesting historical question.

            It's also a very important theological question. No Jesus, and the whole house of cards is smoked.

            But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ is lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NIV]

            To the extent that I have a bias, it is towards the historicists and against the mythicists. That's because, if the historicists are correct, it seems to me to be easier to explain the origins of Christianity than if the mythicists are correct.

            There's nothing wrong with that, it is the default position we all have, although it does give undeserved respect where non is warranted. I guess it's a cultural thing. The default position given what is known, must be agnostic on the subject. If the historical Jesus hypothesis was beyond reproach, the subject would be moot.

            If you take the mythicist position, then you have to come up with an entirely different account for the origins of Christianity than the usual one (that there was a real guy named Jesus whose followers carried on after his death).

            There is, a number of alternative hypotheses, some not very credible, but some that are very credible indeed.

            You say that you've been reading everything you can get your hands on. Based on what you have read, have the mythicists made a serious attempt at the task of providing an alternate explanation of the origins of Christianity, or have they mainly been concentrated up to this point on casting doubt on the existence of a historical Jesus?

            IMO, yes, but that's for you to decide. Carrier has the second instalment and follow to, "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus", a peer reviewed book on the historical Jesus subject. It is currently in final proof reading for press and he states it will be released early April. I'm busting to get my hands on it.

            On the Historicity of Jesus, has passed peer review and is now under contract to be published by a major academic press specializing in biblical studies: Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing house of the University of Sheffield (UK). I sought four peer review reports from major professors of New Testament or Early Christianity, and two have returned their reports, approving with revisions, and those revisions have been made. Since two peers is the standard number for academic publications, we can proceed. Two others missed the assigned deadline, but I’m still hoping to get their reports and I’ll do my best to meet any revisions they require as well.

            If you are interested, reading "Proving History" the lead in, might be advisable.

            The one thing I do take away from the mythicist case is the reminder that basically all of our knowledge of the historical Jesus (if he existed) comes from members of the cult of Jesus, and therefore that none of it is necessarily very trustworthy.

            Indeed, Ehrman does an excellent job of showing us all why in "Misquoting Jesus", "Jesus, Interrupted" and "Forged".

            However, I don't equate "not trustworthy" with "absolutely false."

            Of course not. As critical thinkers it is incumbent on us to assess ALL the data and come to the most rational conclusion based on the best and most convincing arguments...I'd expect nothing less. If the argument and evidence takes us in a direction opposing that held, so be it.

          • Sqrat

            It's also a very important theological question. No Jesus, and the whole house of cards is smoked.

            I think it's already thoroughly smoked, regardless of whether there was a historical Jesus.

            I look into Carrier's blog frequently to see what he's up to. You've probably noticed that his latest post is a take-down of Maurice Casey's Jesus : Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?. According to Carrier, "So far only two contemporary books [the other, presumably, being Ehrman's recent work] have been written in defense of the historicity of Jesus (nothing properly comparable has been published in almost a hundred years)." And "They both suck. Which is annoying, because it should not be hard to write a good book in defense of historicity."

          • Ignorant Amos

            I've just been reading it. I think Carrier is getting frustrated at the lack of substance in these two attempts. He really wants a half decent effort in order to get his teeth into and get his position into the limelight. The historical Jesus fraternity are self serving. The consensus is the consensus because they are all referencing each other, but where's the best arguments, why can't they take down, or even attempt to take down the best mythicist arguments, prefering to pick off the low hanging fruit as Carrier puts it?

          • David Nickol

            I've just been reading it. I think Carrier is getting frustrated at the lack of substance in these two attempts.

            Based on reading just a little from Carrier's blog, I don't think he is doing his position any favors by characterizing those who disagree with him of being not merely uncomprehending and incompetent, but liars and scoundrels. That is not how academics and scholars debate ideas. Whether or not his arguments are correct, his tone is all wrong. He comes across as an angry and arrogant crackpot. Please not that I am not saying he is one. I'm just saying that, at least in the limited look I have taken of him, he makes a bad impression.

          • Michael

            Carrier was very polite to Mark Goodacre in his debate with him (http://www.premierradio.org.uk/listen/ondemand.aspx?mediaid={4D88EAB4-474E-4338-B8B4-7B7AD0410B24}) and in his follow up blog post on that debate (http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/2839). He was not even harsh in his post responding to Jimmy Akin and Trent Horn (http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4573).

            Carrier's strong criticism of Bart Ehrman shouldn't be signaled out as representative of all of his discourse.

          • Robert Sowden

            I read your link. Although I might have been lie to, I have been taught differently. Where it states that "No document has been written by anyone who knew him (Jesus), most authors of the new testament walked with Him. Matthew the tax collector, John the beloved, James the less, and Peter the rock. Acts tells us that Paul interacted with all of the above and disagrees at times with peter. It is hard to refute their claims because they paid for them with their lives. Would you die for a lie?
            They were being persecuted by the Jews and the Roman empire at the time, which may explain why no outside sources exist.

          • Eric Breaux

            Yet when people use the argument that most scientists are evolutionists (not taking into account the scientists that don't speak agaisnt evolution, because many people who came to doubt evolution have been fired on that basis alone) to make evolution seem legitimate, it's suddenly good enough a rebuttal to all evidence against it. http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm, http://m.harunyahya.com/en/books/4190/The-Transitional-Form-Dilemma/chapter/5157/The-sudden-appearance-of-major-animal-groups http://www.studytoanswer.net/origins/abiogenesis.html#con

        • Doug Shaver

          " Why he chose to attack Bart Ehrman so ferociously and so personally is a mystery to me."
          Having read Ehrman's book on Jesus' historicity, Carrier's motivation is not the least bit mysterious to me.

          • David Nickol

            So you approve of personal attacks as a part of scholarly debate. Forgive me if I disagree.

          • Doug Shaver

            I didn't say I approve of personal attacks. I said I understand why Carrier's attack on Ehrman was so ferocious, and in so saying, I am not agreeing that there was anything personal about it.

        • Michael Murray

          You probably know Carrier has a new book out.

          http://www.amazon.com/On-Historicity-Jesus-Might-Reason/dp/1909697494

          I hope it is going to turn up here at some point.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I don't think anyone would claim the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are even remotely historical.

      There's that dude named Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

      • Ignorant Amos

        If he did Kevin, he'd be wrong.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          He does. And why is he wrong?

          • Ignorant Amos

            Before we begin.

            Which one is historical then?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Both. But before you jump all over my case with differences between Matthew and Luke, why don't you read his "Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives"?

          • Ignorant Amos

            I will...have you a link?

            I assume it is an attempt at harmonization apologetics, but never let it be said I'm obstinate of the other sides position.

            BTW, the evidence suggests there was no Nazareth at the time the Holy family is alleged to have lived there. At least not a the place it was said to be.

          • Kevin Aldrich
          • David Nickol

            Here you go.

            And are you willing to read a book that I recommend?

            I have not read Benedict's book on the Infancy narratives all the way through, but I own it and am familiar enough with it to say that while he frequently states the infancy narratives (and the Gospels" are "historical," nevertheless they are (as he says of Matthew's infancy narrative, "real history, theologically thought through and interpreted." Exactly what that means is not clearly defined, and of course it is not the same thing as plain and simple "real history."

            He does not make an attempt to harmonize Matthew and Luke's accounts, and for the most part, he deals with them separately, not bothering to note conflicts. He does, however, say of the two genealogies:

            A further striking difference is that Matthew and Luke agree on only a handful of names; not even the name of Joseph's father is common to the two. How can this be? Apart from elements drawn from the Old Testament, both authors have based themselves on traditions whose sources we cannot reconstruct. It seems to me utterly futile to formulate hypotheses on this matter. Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbolic structure within which Jesus' place in history is set before us . . . .

            So I don't think his book is a good source to point to for someone asking how both Matthew and Luke's accounts can both be history. Benedict doesn't show how they can both be true despite contradictions. He just says they are historical, does not try to harmonize them, acknowledges that other authorities question the historicity of various incidents (e.g., the Magi), but says he believes they are "history theologically thought through and interpreted."

          • Ignorant Amos

            Thanks David...I've just been reading reviews and it appears that the book is theology indeed...it is under the heading theology on Amazon. I did find some consternation among the clerics though... http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2012/12/colombian-jesuit-silenced-over-critical-review-of-popes-book/

            ...which resulted in the silencing and sacking of the outspoken.

            "In sum: the reader of this work by Ratzinger will find the affirmation of Mary’s virginity. Given that the Pope follows the descending path in this work, he emphasizes his divinity, which gives rise to the theological virginity of Mary (Mt 1:26) and silences his humanity, whose origin isn’t virginal (Mt 13:53 ff). In other words: Mary conceived the Son of God virginally, in the theological sense, without the intervention of Joseph, as is narrated in Matthew 1:26, by the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, as mother of Jesus the man, just like us, she conceived him through an act of love with her legal spouse, Joseph, with whom she had four sons and several daughters (Mt 13:53 ff)."

            So not history, but theology.

        • Sqrat

          Since the two narratives are so contradictory, for both of them to be historical would take, well, a miracle.....

    • Luke claims at the beginning of his work, which included both Luke and Acts to have specifically researched them through contacting witnesses. That sounds like historical research to me, making them historical documents. His account in Acts is not disputed, so why would he tarnish his reputation by making stuff up. Luke was actually one of the books that ultimately persuaded my belief, when I asked myself from whom he must have gotten his accounts. It becomes very clear that the author had to have spoken firsthand to specific figures, because only they would have known what happened in some scenes. The infancy narrative in particular had just one living witness when Luke would have done his research.

      • David Nickol

        It becomes very clear that the author had to have spoken firsthand to specific figures, because only they would have known what happened in some scenes.

        Could you give an example? How can you know that what Luke is telling you in those scenes is what actually happened? How do you know that the evangelists, in numerous cases, didn't write what the believed "must have" happened? Does it seem plausible to you, for example, in the accounts of Jesus being tempted in the desert that Jesus relayed the the dialogue to his followers—"And the I said . . . and then the devil said . . . and then I said to him . . . and then he said to me . . . ."

        • Sqrat

          Or consider the example of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. We are told, first, that Jesus separated himself from the disciples in order not to be overheard, and second, that the disciples fell asleep anyway. Who, then, overheard the content of Jesus' prayer and reported it to the the Gospel writers? Who was the eyewitness who, in the darkness, observed that Jesus' "sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" and subsequently reported that observation to "Luke"?

          • He separated himself from the main body of the disciples, but took Peter James & John aside, and actually had wanted them to pay attention. They were not awake for the whole three hour episode, but they were awake for part of it. Any one of them could have recounted it. Since I believe as the accounts state that he was resurrected, even if they did not witness the part that is recorded, Jesus could have recounted the details --

            But I think that slick way out is not necessary. The prayer in the Garden was a three-hour ordeal. The small amount we have recorded is consistent with seeing it start (Jesus throwing himself prostrate on the ground) and intermittent waking, as seems to be described. Who knows what else was said in three hours?

          • Sqrat

            Two gospels, Matthew and Mark, said that he had the three disciples accompany him. None of the gospels says that it was a three-hour episode. Mark does have Jesus say to Peter, the FIRST time he found the three sleeping, "Could you not watch one hour?", but gives no indication of the duration of the entire event, and neither Matthew nor Luke say. Neither Matthew nor Luke says that the three remained awake for part of the time -- although, as you say, it would have been possible. Luke doesn't say that Jesus had any disciples at all accompany him, but rather says that he separated himself from them by "a stone's throw" (presumably so he could pray in private) and then returned to find them sleeping. Only Luke, the one who says nothing of any disciples accompanying Jesus, speaks of his sweat being "like great drops of blood falling to the ground" -- and also says that "there appeared to [Jesus] an angel from heaven, strengthening him," something apparently unknown to either Matthew or Mark. John does not recount the episode at all so adds no additional information.

            So your first hypothesis -- that one or more of the three disciples who Matthew and Mark say accompanied Jesus remained awake long enough to overhear his part of his prayer -- is plausible, provided that we also assume that Luke was wrong to imply that Jesus separated himself from all of the disciples and instead took three with him as Matthew and Mark state (and of course we would still need to account why neither Matthew or Mark mention the angel that Luke talks about).

            Your other hypothesis -- that the resurrected Jesus told the disciples later -- is obviously inherently implausible to anyone who believes that Jesus was not resurrected, but would also implausible on Luke's account that Jesus separated himself from the disciples in order to pray. If Jesus wanted to pray in private, why would he choose to reveal the content of his prayer later, whether pre- or post-resurrection? In addition, a post-resurrection revelation of the contents of his prayer to the disciples is not something mentioned by Luke or anyone else.

        • As one example, regarding Luke, only Jesus' mother Mary could have been the source for much of what is in the Gospel of Luke. Since I rarely hear dispute of Luke's account of Paul's travels, I find no reason to believe him any less competent in composing his Gospel.

          You ask: "Does it seem plausible to you, for example, in the accounts of Jesus being tempted in the desert that Jesus relayed the the dialogue to his followers" Absolutely. Why not? The fact that multiple versions of this account exist suggest that it was associated closely enough with his ministry that it got spread around as commonly as the stories of his healings.

          Remember that while this was an uncommonly literate community for its day, most people still did not own manuscripts. Even what was written carried the expectation it would be read out loud to groups of people, rather than reach most of its audience by their reading it themselves. In this sense it was merely intended to expand the reach of those accounts already spoken.

          That is why there was no need for a written "Q" source -- and why there is really no evidence in the text to support such an idea. The concept comes from a post-Gutenberg bias that oral tradition cannot be dependable -- as we are programmed to believe by "the telephone game". Formal oral tradition, in actuality, does not work like the telephone game. Only certain members of the group/tribe are officially authorized to transfer cultural knowledge. They get to repeat it back to their mentors as many times as necessary to get it right, before they are actually permitted to pass the stories on themselves.

          Even in a population with the degree of literacy of first century Hebrews, much still depended on accurate verbal transmission of information. This society in particular put a premium on recounting events truthfully, with heavy penalties for bearing false witness. THE ASSERTION THAT THERE HAD TO BE A WRITTEN SOURCE DOCUMENT TO EXPLAIN SYNOPTIC GOSPEL SIMILARITIES IS A CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL BIAS.

          Mark emphasizes who -- if not by name -- recounted certain stories to others, and where they told them. This is the oral tradition equivalent of citing a source. Matthew was largely an eyewitness account, Mark -- far from being the most original (if we send a document to Copyscape with all material available elsewhere, would it come back classified as original work?) -- is the most derived, being a journalistic summation of existing reports. Luke -- as the author claims -- was the product of research, seeking eyewitness accounts of the events that had by then come to be handed on in writing. In that culture verbal accounts qualified as valid records, part of the reason the elderly were esteemed. When they died their witness died with them.

          These, along with my original post, are my own conclusions and the reason after much consideration I chose to reject the "Q" source theory, at least as far as a written document goes. The only "Q" source needed were the verbal accounts the texts we have already claim existed.

          The dominant paradigm of New Testament redaction criticism rests on unwarranted assumptions, culturally biased to our standards of documentation, retro-jecting our priorities onto an ancient society where most information still got passed on verbally. In that particular society the fact that the accounts were verbal does not diminish their dependability because of the social taboos on speaking falsehood.

          • Ignorant Amos

            As one example, regarding Luke, only Jesus' mother Mary could have been the source for much of what is in the Gospel of Luke.

            So hearsay then? Or hearsay of hearsay of hearsay and so on. Hardly historical.

            Since I rarely hear dispute of Luke's account of Paul's travels, I find no reason to believe him any less competent in composing his Gospel.

            That's because you must sink yourself in bias sources.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_reliability_of_the_Acts_of_the_Apostles

            http://infidels.org/library/modern/sid_green/hidden.html

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Actually, recent research indicates that even in oral cultures, transmission of knowledge is highly unreliable.

          • David Nickol

            THE ASSERTION THAT THERE HAD TO BE A WRITTEN SOURCE DOCUMENT TO EXPLAIN
            SYNOPTIC GOSPEL SIMILARITIES IS A CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL BIAS.

            I am more amazed at the people who believe they have studied contemporary biblical scholarship enough to dissent from the majority view (Marcan priority, Q, oral tradition, etc.) than I am by the "mythicists" who claim to be convinced Jesus didn't exist.

            You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I as I have argued before, I feel no more urge to argue that the majority is correct about the gospels than that science is right about the germ theory of disease or that the earth is not the center of the universe.

            It is always possible that a majority view within an academic field will be incorrect. But in a forum like this, the evidence a "dissenter" needs to present to even merit a response must be extremely compelling.

            The dominant paradigm of New Testament redaction criticism rests on unwarranted assumptions . . . .

            Do you really believe those who study the gospels base their understanding about how oral traditions were passed along in the first century on contemporary models? Could they really be that naive? Here is answer to the question, "Has NT scholarship undermined the historical value of the Gospels?" in the Introduction of The Oral Gospel Tradition by James G. D. Dunn, a major figure in contemporary New Testament scholarship. His answer is, Yes and no."

            Yes!—but only for the person who comes to the Gospels with expectations they were not designed to fulful. Whoever looks for chronological accounts, detailed conciseness in every episode recorded, pedantic precision in reproducing Jesus' teaching as given, word for word, and such like will be disappointed. But not because of anything scholars have said or done. Rather because the evangelists themselves were not concerned with such matters. The fault here, if fault there be, lies not in the scholars or in their findings, but in the false expectations with which so many have come to the Gospels. The failure, if failure there be, is failure to take the Gospels as they are, on their own terms, the failure to recognize their own emphases and priorities and concerns.

            No!—because all these traditions of which we have given example go back to Jesus and his ministry. All are firmly rooted in the earliest memories of his mission. In conveying the trditions of Jesus' words and deeds the evangelists were concerned to present the tradition in ways that spoke most powerfully to their readers. So while it is ever the first memories of Jesus which they retell, they do so in words often shaped by the circumstances and needs for which they were told.

            In my own words, not pretending to speak for Dunn, I would say that the idea that people relayed memorized stories about what Jesus actually said and in such a way that when the evangelists came to write the Gospels, they just wrote down all the oft-told tales is not correct. But (as I have argued a number of times), I feel there is no need for me or for anyone else to defend this view in a forum such as this. It can be looked up in standard reference works and textbooks.

          • Ignorant Amos

            ... than I am by the "mythicists" who claim to be convinced Jesus didn't exist.

            I think that might be an over generalisation of the mythicist position. Certainly of those I've read. Richard Carrier, one of the foremost of the modern mythicists certainly doesn't think so, or at least didn't. The mythicist position is that the evidence leads to a different conclusion and the subject is worth investigation and review, as opposed to being dismissed out of hand. Most mythicists would claim to be agnostic on the subject, leaning in varying degrees away from an historical person. They might be convinced their arguments are sound, but it is all about probability in the end of the day.

          • Doug Shaver

            "Most mythicists would claim to be agnostic on the subject, leaning in varying degrees away from an historical person."

            I can't claim anything about most mythicists, but that describes my own position pretty well. It also describes the position of any mythicist scholar whose opinion I could respect. I believe that Jesus' nonexistence is less likely, to a significant epistemological degree, than his existence, but that is all. I think that anyone who claims to be certain of his nonexistence is basing his belief on something other than a careful examination of the pertinent evidence.

  • Timothy Reid

    I appreciate this post very much, Father.
    It's an important MODERN understanding of the Gospels that more people of faith and of non-faith need to understand.
    I'm always finding people who claim that Jesus was a total work of fiction, yet they accept that other people of the Ancient World existed despite less historical written evidence.
    Happily this post does not allow the possibility of descent into an argument about the reality of miracles. The concept of biblical scholarship is not fairy tale research, but a legitimate historical pursuit on par with those that study ancient Persia, Greece, Egypt or Rome.
    Just because there is evidence in the Bible and someone doesn't believe in the Bible does not mean that it's not real historical evidence.

    • Danny Getchell

      Timothy, I think that Julius Caesar was a real person, based on the historical evidence.

      Yet if in the accounts of Caesar's life it was claimed that he fed an entire legion with a single ration, or raised centurions from the dead, it would cause me to doubt the historicity of not only those events, but also the more "mundane" events of his career.

      It is of course the absence of such claims that make Caesar more credible as a historical figure, not their presence

      • Timothy Reid

        You don't think that any other historical figure has had incredible things attributed to them that the person did not do? It just sounds like sour grapes and an agenda of not merely disbelief, but destruction.
        You don't have to like Christianity. You don't have to believe in God. What you can't do is deny that there is evidence that a large fraction of the Roman Empire became Christian by the end of the first century. Were they all duped????
        If so, why didn't the majority of Romans denounce them as believers in a fictional character?
        What it sounds like you're saying is
        "Because people say Jesus did miracles and rose from the dead, he must be not a real historical person."
        It's fine that you don't believe in miracles, but enough people hated Christianity back then as well and none of them ever suggested Jesus was an invention. They said lots of other stuff, but never that.

        • Ben Posin

          Timothy,
          The more incredible the stories told about a supposedly historical theater, the less credible the mundane stories start to become. This strikes me as particularly reasonable when the mundane and incredible stories are both coming from the same limited set of sources. As I mentioned elsewhere, when Matthew tells me about MANY dead rising and encountering people in Jersualem, it makes me doubt the accuracy of other things he's saying, that I might have been more inclined to credit from another source. That doesn't mean that there was no person upon whom the stories of Jesus were based--that he was invented from whole cloth--but it does suggest to me that it's reasonable to ask if such a person existed, and if he did, what we actually know about him.

          In a certain sense, doesn't it become somewhat academic whether Jesus was "real" if the real "Jesus" didn't actually say or do those things which Christians most associate with him now?

          • Timothy Reid

            "In a certain sense, doesn't it become somewhat academic whether Jesus was "real" if the real "Jesus" didn't actually say or do those things which Christians most associate with him now?"

            You are speaking from a position of doubt. If you approach the stories from a skeptical point of view, it's much harder to allow the grace of these stories to affect you.
            Forgive me for using "faith" talk, but it's just the reality of the situation. Looking at any story from a position of faith automatically changes your interpretation and reaction to that story.
            I cannot give anyone faith. It's not mine to give. I can merely speak on behalf of those that have it. I can't dispense it.

          • Ben Posin

            Well, yes. If I believed in the story, I'd believe in the story. I don't really see how that changes my above points, though.

          • Timothy Reid

            It doesn't change them, it merely speaks to your position of doubt. Faith is an intangible quality and even though it can cooperate with reason, it isn't reason.

          • Doug Shaver

            "I cannot give anyone faith. It's not mine to give. I can merely speak on behalf of those that have it. I can't dispense it."

            If you could dispense it, would you? If so, would that be because you think those of us without it would be better off with it?

  • David Nickol

    To take one incident—the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist—what does it mean to say it was historical? I think there is pretty much of a consensus among those working on uncovering the historical Jesus that John the Baptist did actually baptize Jesus. But what does it mean? To many, it indicates that Jesus began as a disciple of John the Baptist and for some reason then started his own ministry. This does not fit so well with the idea that Jesus is God incarnate, so the Gospels depict John as declaring himself unworthy to baptize Jesus and for good measure have God's voice from heaven calling Jesus his son. So John the Baptist is depicted as being well aware of who Jesus is, and yet in Matthew 11 John sends some of his followers to Jesus to ask if Jesus is the "one who is to come" or should they look for another. Can this be explained away as John the Baptist having come to doubt Jesus since the time he baptized him? Of was he not as convinced of who Jesus was as he is made out to be when he baptized Jesus? (Or does John not really send some of his followers to to ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come?)

    What we have, then, is a conclusion that Jesus was probably baptized by John the Baptist, but we have no particular cause to believe the accounts of Jesus's baptism by John give historically correct details.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Can this be explained away as John the Baptist having come to doubt Jesus since the time he baptized him? Of was he not as convinced of who Jesus was as he is made out to be when he baptized Jesus? (Or does John not really send some of his followers to to ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come?

      Or, John, being in prison, wanted his disciples to go experience Jesus in person.

      • David Nickol

        Or, John, being in prison, wanted his disciples to go experience Jesus in person.

        Matthew tells us

        When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see . . .

        Interestingly, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says of Matthew 11:2-6:

        These verses contain a school debate, probably of post resurrection origin, over the nature of Jesus' mission, held between disciples of JBap and Christians.

  • Sqrat

    Believers accept the possibility of the miraculous. Non-believers do
    not. In each case the bias will affect the conclusion, however it must
    be said that one who believes miracles are possible is immediately more
    open-minded than one who rules that they are impossible. The believer is
    open therefore to more possibilities than the non-believer who, a priori, rules miracles out entirely.

    This particular passage, which suggests that non-believers are closed-minded, is a gratuitous insult. More than that, it is very puzzling. It talks of the "believer" as being "open to more possibilities." But if the the thing the believer believes, in a particular instance, is that a miracle occurred, could we not invert Longenecker's claim and accuse the believer of being closed-minded by having dismissed the possibility that no miracle actually occurred? Given two possibilities, "a miracle occurred" or "no miracle occurred," isn't the latter always vastly more plausible than the former, so that one could accuse the believer of not only being closed-minded, but of being just plain more gullible than the non-believer?

    • David Nickol

      You point out an odd passage. When doing history, there is a limit to how "open minded" one ought to be. Miracles are "off limits" to historians practicing their craft just as they are to scientists. (History, after all, is one of the "social sciences.") Fr. Longenecker calls into question his understanding of what history is if he is suggesting that historians should be more "open minded" on the question of miracles.

      • Sqrat

        Absolutely. If you accept the possibility that a miracle described in an ancient text was actually a supernatural event, you are no longer doing history, you are doing theology.

    • Timothy Reid

      Like Father said, it's not about believing in miracles. It's about Jesus' historicity. Longenecker is not debating miracles....he's saying don't discount his historicity just because you cannot accept miracles. The Gospels do not only talk about miracles.

      • Sqrat

        I think not. It's about the supposed historicity of the Gospels, wherein it is asserted that certain miracles occurred, most notably the miracle of Jesus' resurrection. The conclusion Longenecker clearly wants us to reach is that "the so-called mythological elements of the gospels (angels, resurrection, ascension into heaven, Son of God)" aren't mythological at all.

  • Peter Piper

    I really appreciate this post, and the insight it gives into how scholars examine the gospels. Thanks a lot.

  • David Nickol

    If it is going to be asserted that the Gospels are "historical," it is obviously necessary to define what is meant by historical. Here is a key paragraph from Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation):

    19. Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ's life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who "themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word" we might know "the truth" concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).

    From this paragraph, and especially from seeing how biblical scholarship is done in practice, historical in this context seems to be closer in meaning to historical in historical novel than in, say, historical incident.

    Here's a paragraph from Pope Benedict's book on the infancy narratives that comes toward the end of the discussion of the Adoration of the Magi:

    . . . In any case, it should be noted that over the last fifty years there has been an about-turn in the thinking on this question of historicity, based not on new historical knowledge, but rather on a changed attitude toward Scripture and to the Christian message in general. While Gerhard Delling in the fourth volume of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1942) was still convinced of the historicity of the Magi story on the basis of historical research (cf. p. 358, n. 11), since that time even exegetes as ecclesially minded as Ernst Nellessen and Rudolf Pesch have rejected historicity, or at least they have left the question open.

    Note that rejecting the historicity of the story of the Magi necessarily requires rejecting the story of the star in the east (which the Magi followed) and almost certainly means rejecting the history of Herod's Massacre of the Innocents.

    What does it mean to say the Gospel of Matthew is "historical" if such widely known, memorable, and dramatic incidents as the visit of the Magi or the Massacre of the Innocents did not happen?

    • Timothy Reid

      You've got your research techniques down perfectly, David.
      Kudos for that.
      However what your tenacity feels like is not dispassionate open-mindedness (like Ratzinger suggests in the quote above) but biased dislike for Christianity and a pre-determined conclusion that isn't really supported by the evidence. Frauds and hoaxes of history have more evidence than this supposed fraud of Jesus' historicity. Leaving the question open is not the same as saying "THIS DEFINITIVELY DID NOT HAPPEN."

      • David Nickol

        However what your tenacity feels like is not dispassionate
        open-mindedness . . . but biased
        dislike for Christianity and a pre-determined conclusion that isn't
        really supported by the evidence.

        I have no doubt that Jesus existed or that his teachings are somewhat faithfully represented in the Gospels. However, this discussion is not about me or what you think my attitude is. It's about what it means to call the Gospels "historical" if even Pope Benedict notes as a possibility that the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents weren't actual, historical events (even though he believes they were).

        Leaving the question open is not the same as saying "THIS DEFINITIVELY DID NOT HAPPEN."

        No need to use all caps. I did not say anything "definitively did not happen." Again, my question is what it means to say that the Gospels are historical and even leave open the question whether the Magi, their meeting with Herod, and the Massacre of the Innocents.

        • Timothy Reid

          If I have misread your intention, I apologize. What precisely are you trying to say? Are you merely pointing out that history is an imprecise exercise that requires a great deal of skepticism and unreliability upon sources before coming to a conclusion?
          If that's all it is, sure fine.

      • Ignorant Amos

        However what your tenacity feels like is not dispassionate open-mindedness (like Ratzinger suggests in the quote above) but biased dislike for Christianity and a pre-determined conclusion that isn't really supported by the evidence.

        Oh dear...you've really missed the mark there by a long chalk. David's honesty and objectivity has hit a raw nerve.

        Perhaps you might like to review his commenting history before shooting from the hip.

        • Timothy Reid

          Well, Amos, what long chalk would you like to erase?
          There is no raw nerve being struck by anyone in this thread. It merely sounded to me that David was eager to assert that the historicity of Jesus was very doubtful, but the historicity of other figures was much more reliable.
          If I misread his intent, I apologize, but as for raw nerves.........
          It's merely curiosity about his opinion of historical reliability.
          David seems to be able to speak for himself and does not need you to make assumptions about me and my "raw nerve"s.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Having recently read "The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View" by Aaron Adair it would seem that there was not nor could have been such a star. Now Jimmy Akin has had a go at refuting the book in a vain attempt to support the unsupportable...entertaining in its own right.

  • David Nickol

    What does it mean to say the Gospels are "historical"?

    • Excellent question. The implication seems to be that all of the events reflect events that actually happened, as written. But that is an enormous claim for such old documents, when we have no originals and the copies we have contain so many alterations.

      The generic us of the term "scholars" here is vague and misleading in this regard.

    • Medequcb68

      David, how do you define "historical" and what is your evidentiary requirement to satisfy historicity of what has been said/written? Would lack of understanding of what actually happened qualifies the event as non event? The gospels were designed to preach salvation through witnessing. They weren't designed to capture events otherwise it should have been written in another way. But the intent or design does not remove the fact the gospels were testimonials of witnesses and both believers and non believers at the time of the first Christian writers did not dispute the fact that Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he was lain was empty.

      • David Nickol

        David, how do you define "historical" and what is your evidentiary requirement to satisfy historicity of what has been said/written?

        I can give you my definition of historical, but please note that the OP says the following:

        It should be noted that the results of these methods of textual analysis are not always unanimously in favor of the historicity of the gospels. However, the results are significantly satisfactory for professional historians and Biblical scholars working together to show that the gospels are, for the most part, historically reliable documents.

        The title of the OP is "How Do We Know the Gospels are Historical?" The clear implication of the title and the OP itself is that the Gospels are historical. It seems to me it is up to Fr. Dwight Longenecker, not me, to give some kind of definition of historical.

        I will say, briefly, what I would not consider "historical." If the genealogies in Matthew and Luke cannot be reconciled (and they can't), then at least one of them cannot be historical. It may be that both genealogies tell us something important that Matthew and Luke believed about Jesus. What they believed might have been true, so the genealogies might be of some importance. However, if one or both genealogies do not give the genealogy of Jesus—do not name his real ancestors—then they are not historical. Likewise, if there were no Magi, if there was no star they followed, if they did not bring gifts, if they did not alert Herod, and if Herod did not order infants to be killed in an attempt to eliminate what he believed to be some kind of new king, then even if the story tells us something important that Matthew and the early Christians believed about Jesus, and even if that belief was true, the story is not historical.

        If the story of George Washington as a boy confessing to chopping down a cherry tree did not actually happen, it may tell us something about Washington's character that was true—he may have been honest to a fault—but the story about the cherry tree is not historical.

        There is the following story about picking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24):

        As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain. At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”

        Were the Pharisees out in a field on the Sabbath spying on Jesus and his disciples? It is highly unlikely. It is much more likely that this is a "dramatization" of a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees, not an actual incident. If so, no matter how accurately it depicts the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about the understanding of the Sabbath, and no matter how valuable it is to understanding the teachings of Jesus, I think it cannot be called "historical."

        I do not doubt that Jesus lived, had a public ministry, and was crucified. I think that Jesus said some of the things he is reported as saying in the Gospels. I would not say, however, that that is enough to make the Gospels "historical."

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        Actually, we have no evidence about what non believers at the time of the first Christian writers thought about the whole "tomb" thing.

        • Medequcb68

          Does absent of a contrary evidence actually disprove an assertion? Or does it signify conformity to the fact asserted?

    • Moussa Taouk

      I guess it means that the gospels are rooted in actual history. They have history as their basis, and not fictitious story-telling.

      • David Nickol

        I guess it means that the gospels are rooted in actual history.

        Well, historical novels are rooted in actual history.

        • Moussa Taouk

          Well, historical novels are rooted in actual history.

          Yes sir, they are.

  • Before scholars can determine whether the "original" gospels reflect actual events, they will first have to try and figure out what the originals said. There are no original versions of gospel texts, the documents we have are copies of copies of copies. The authorship of many of them is unknown and some of the letters attributed to Paul are widely accepted by historians as forgeries.

    The implication in this piece that most of the stories contained in the New Testament are widely accepted by the community of historical scholars as representing actual events is incorrect.

    For those who are interested in what historians actually accept from the New Testament I would recommend this video and series of lectures:

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VSuYKIqlJMc

    • The line in the comment says a lot. He claims "it is possible to construct the historical Jesus." Talk about oxymorons. Construct and historical are incompatible. You don't make something that is historical. Yet that is precisely what modern scholarship does. The Jesus of modern scholarship always ends up looking like the scholar. We do that with God. We assume He must have the same values we do. Jesus came precisely to free us from that. So we could actually encounter God and not just use our pious imagination to convince ourselves God is on our side.

      • David Nickol

        Construct and historical are incompatible. You don't make something that is historical.

        All history is (re)construction. Almost no one believes the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and even if they were, they are interpretations of Jesus. But by far the majority of scholars believe the Gospels were oral traditions and some documents largely edited and partly written by the Evangelists. (This is even the official position of the Catholic Church.) Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't each present an identical portrait of Jesus, and John is dramatically different from the Synoptics.

        All we have are interpretations of Jesus, even if you believe that the Gospels were inspired and the Church interprets them infallibly.

        The Jesus of modern scholarship always ends up looking like the scholar.

        There is some truth to that, but largely it's a cliché used by people (or Churches) who want to stick with their own interpretation of Jesus—for example, the Church that wants to claim that Jesus instituted seven sacraments and forget he said things like turn the other cheek, it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, and, "“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        Unfortunately, except for those who actually met the man, no one has had that encounter. Leaving us once more in the dark, according to you.

      • I'm not exactly sure what you are on about, but I terms of constructions, this is all anyone can do in trying in determine what actually happened 2000years ago. We have a limited number of sources and we need to find a way to try and develop a narrative.

        Historians look at all sources and try and come up with a narrative that the particular historian thinks makes the most sense.

        If you watch this video and series you will see that he is very careful to distinguish his historical reading of the sources from a theological reading. He doesn't just talk about scholars.

        For example, this video professor lays out what he thinks the most reliable historical reading is. Jesus existed, he was crucified. But he notes that the narratives of the trial are not supportable historically. This kind of proceeding just did not happen in the Roman Empire.

        What I am saying is that we should defer to credible historians like a

        • Yale professor teaching an intro to NT studies course. This one happens to be a Christian and he is clear to distinguish what he believes from what historians can say with confidence. If we are speaking theologically, do we defer to Catholic authority? Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? There are well respected scholars with good reputations who have vastly different understandings of the divinity of Jesus. And there is no theological way distinguish as each starts from a place where their particular theological construction is not open to debate.

          • I don't actually think you can remove theological assumptions from historical analysis. It is very useful information. If we know the trial of Jesus is very different from other trial in the Roman Empire in certain respects that is great data. Now where do we go from there? Do we assume that the data was made up and that early Christians living in the same Roman Empire didn't notice? Or do we assume that the Romans noticed something exceptional about Jesus and behaved in an exceptional way?

          • David Nickol

            Do we assume that the data was made up and that early Christians living in the same Roman Empire didn't notice?

            Where do the accounts of the trial(s) of Jesus come from? The professor in the video above says the Gospel authors would have had no way of knowing and so they wrote what they thought "must have" happened. But suppose the first followers of Jesus somehow did know what happened at the trial(s). Were they around to check the Gospels for accuracy thirty years later? Jesus and his first followers spoke Aramaic. The Gospels were all written in Greek.

          • Ignorant Amos

            If we know the trial of Jesus is very different from other trial in the Roman Empire in certain respects that is great data.

            Do we know there was a trial? How do we know this? Because of the contradictory accounts in the gospels? Who witnessed the trial?

            What we do know is the description of the alleged trial is very different from the historical record of similar occurrences. It is not how things played out, if it had been, we'd expect to see a record because of it unusualness. The descriptions we have are not taken as historical by scholars.

  • J_Bob

    Two interesting items about the gospels might be considered by two different people. These are items by Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, and the French priest Fr. Jean Carmigan, Dead Sea Scroll scholar.

    The former uses the last gospel's note ( Muratorian fragment) that the Pool of the 5 Portico is still standing (leveled in 70 AD.). And uses this as a basis for dating the early composition of John prior to Jerusalem's destruction, & has been discovered.

    The later takes a more linguistic approach, in his book "Birth of the Synoptics". Fr. Carmignac was fluent in 1st cent. Hebrew, Greek & Aramaic. As a excercise he translated parts of the Synoptics into Hebrew. To summarize, he found that is made more sense & flowed better the in rough Greek. His belief was that most of the Gospels were composed prior to 60 AD.

    Fr. Carmignac is followed by another Dead Sea Scholar Nehemia Gordon, who also noted that part of the Shem-Tov Hebrew Matthew may clear up some confusion in the meaning of some passages ( Matt. 23:2-3).

    On thing is interesting, as time goes on, more items seem to be discovered, that clarify passages in the Bible.

  • The strongest argument I have found for the historicity of the Gospels is the simplest. The author of Matthew refers to the city Caesarea Philippi. The city of Paneas was known throughout the ancient world for centuries before Christ and long after as a sanctuary for worship of Pan. It was only known as Caesarea Philippi from a few years before the birth of Christ until a bit after 60 A,C.E. -- about the same time that Russia's St. Petersburg was called Leningrad. This strongly supports that Matthew was written in the first half of the First Century, and suggests it as an eyewitness account.

    • Doug Shaver

      It was only known as Caesarea Philippi from a few years before the birth of Christ until a bit after 60 A,C.E. -- about the same time that Russia's St. Petersburg was called Leningrad.

      Huh? There was a city in Russia called Leningrad during the first century CE?

  • Gary M

    Think about this: Just how historically reliable are the Gospels and Acts if even prominent conservative Protestant and evangelical Bible scholars believe that fictional accounts may exist in these books? I have put together a list of statements from such scholars and historians as Richard Bauckham, William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg, and NT Wright on this issue here:

    https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2019/05/23/bombshell-how-historically-reliable-are-the-gospels-if-even-conservative-bible-scholars-believe-they-may-contain-fictional-stories/

  • Gary M

    Most scholars reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. Not only that, even many scholars who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus doubt or reject this claim. So I don't understand how you can believe that the evidence for the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is "good". Believing in the resurrection of Jesus by faith is one thing, but claiming that there is good evidence for it seems to me to be an exaggeration in the extreme.

    https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2019/09/02/does-the-catholic-church-believe-that-the-gospels-were-written-by-eyewitnesses/