Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are the Gospels History or Fiction? (Jesus: Legend or Lord Part 1)

My elementary school has a wonderful librarian, Mrs. Samuels. She played a big role in developing my life-long love of reading, especially biographies. Every week I would head over to the 920 section of the library and grab a book about a new person. I still remember some of those biographies – even the ones about lesser known people like Benjamin Banneker and James Oglethorpe. In fact, my love for biographies became so excessive that Mrs. Samuels actually banned me from the 920 shelf, forcing me to read (ugh) fiction!

How are we to read the four gospels? Do they belong in the history section, or should they more properly be shelved on the fiction bookcase? Is the record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth a factual account of a real-life historical figure, or are the gospels the fictional creation of early Christians? Is Jesus a legend on par with Beowulf or Hercules, or is he Lord?
Over the next few weeks I want to address several questions related to the truthfulness of the gospels, such as:
-Did the gospels borrow from pagan myths?
-Were the gospels tampered with?
-What about other so called lost gospels?

Today we are going to begin with the most basic question of all. Are the gospels fact or fiction? Do the gospels even claim to be historical? If they do not claim to be historical accounts of the life of Jesus, then I won’t have to do the rest of the lessons! And of course, if they do make such a claim, that doesn’t necessarily prove they are true (any more than we would accept the Book of Mormom or the Koran as the word of God just because they claim to be inspired). But we should at least understand what the gospels actually claim for themselves.

The Gospels Claim to Be Historical
Two of the gospels make explicit statements as to why they were written, and both of them, Luke and John, claim to be writing real history about a real person.

Listen to Luke’s prologue:
1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Notice what Luke tells us:
-First, there were many eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life. Eyewtiness.
-Second, Luke carefully investigated these sources.
-Third, his purpose was to produce an orderly (“careful,” NLT) account of Jesus’ life.

Now let’s look at the epilogue of John’s gospel, where he explains why he penned the fourth gospel.
John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
These verses contain key information as to how and why John penned the fourth gospel:
-It describes signs that Jesus performed which were witnessed by the apostles. In other words, it is based on eyewitness testimony of even the author himself.
-John’s account was selective; he chose only a few (seven to be precise) of Jesus’ signs to describe.
-John’s account was written with an agenda: to convince people to believe in Christ.

Without question the gospels profess to be historical documents, to be classified as non-fiction. So we at least know how the gospels writers intended for us to read their books. But since we all agree that just claiming something to be true doesn’t make it so, is there any other evidence we have that we should take these claims seriously?
There are several powerful lines of evidence that reinforce the historical reliability of the gospels.

The Gospels Are Similar to Ancient Biographies

History has preserved many ancient biographies, and when the gospels are compared to these writings it is clear that they share many similarities.
1. Ancient writers chose noble subjects, people that modeled virtuous character in the eyes of the author.
2. They chose subjects they believed were useful for their intended audience to read about.
3. They conducted research.
4. They constructed interesting narratives, with a good beginning and ending.
5. They selected different kinds of material for variety (narrative, speeches, etc).
6. They composed speeches appropriate to speaker and situation.

The four gospels clearly follow these conventions of ancient biography. There is no question that when anyone in the first century would have read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, they would have instantly recognized that they were reading what was intended to be a serious, historical account of the life of Jesus and not a legend.

The Gospels Were Written Too Soon for Legendary Embellishment

The gospels read like the genre of an ancient biography. But there is another reason to take their claim to historical reliability seriously. They were written too soon after the life of Jesus for legendary embellishment to occur.

Ancient legends required generations to evolve - lots of time had to transpire between the actual events and the legendary account. This is simply not possible in the case of the gospels. Jesus died around the year AD 30. Most NT scholars believe the gospels were written between AD 60-100 – within a generation of Jesus’ life and death. In fact, eyewitnesses would still have been around at the time they were written.
Further, in addition to the four gospels, we also have letters written by Paul and the other apostles, many of which were written before the gospels. These letters contain information about Jesus which is even closer to the time of Jesus than the gospels.
For instance, around the year AD 55 Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, and explained what he considered the basics of the gospel message:
1 Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
In this text Paul reflects back on what he taught when he first came to Corinth a couple of years earlier, and says that what he taught he had received from others, perhaps a reference to his trip to Jerusalem soon after his conversion some time in the mid 30s AD.
What this means is that the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection originated almost immediately after the actual events were alleged to take place! There is simply no time for legendary development. And of course this message was based on the eyewitness testimony of multiple witnesses.
So the gospels claim to be history, they read like history, and they were written too soon to be legends. But there is more evidence-

The Gospels Are Corroborated By Other Ancient Historical Documents

Aside from the historical record in the gospels, many crucial details of the life of Jesus are contained in secular historical works.

There are a handful of skeptics who do not even believe Jesus existed, such as a former minister named Dan Barker. In his book Losing Faith in Faith he claims:
I am now convinced that the Jesus story is just a myth. Here’s why: 1) There is no external historical confirmation for the New Testament stories. 2) The New Testament stories are internally contradictory. 3) There are natural explanations for the origin of the Jesus legend. 4) The miracle reports make the story unhistorical (p. 359-360).
This kind of total skepticism is rejected by almost all historians, if for no other reason than the several ancient historical documents which mention Jesus. Here are some examples.
The historian Tacitus (AD 117-138) explained that Nero needed to find a scapegoat to blunt the widely circulated rumor that he started the great fire that devastated Rome in AD 64:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the population. Chrestus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Pontius Pilatus (Annals 15.44).
Notice that he acknowledges that Christ (spelled “Chrestus”) suffered the extreme penalty of crucifixion during the tenure of Pilate.
Pliny the Younger (AD 61-112) was governor of Bythinia, and wrote to Emperor Trajan to explain how he dealt with Christians. According to Pliny:
But they maintained that their guilt or error had amounted only to this: they had been in the habit of meeting on an appointed day before daybreak and singing a hymn to Christ as if to a God (Epistles 10:96:7).
Here we have documentary evidence that the divinity of Christ was not a fictional embellishment of later centuries of church tradition, but a cherished belief of the earliest Christians.
The Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-97) also mentions Jesus, in the context of the murder of his brother.
Ananias assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James (Antiquities 20.9).
Jesus is also mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (AD 135), an early account of rabbinic teaching.
It has been taught: on the eve of the Passover Yesu was hanged [on a cross, not by lynching]. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery” (Sanhedrin 43a).
If we did not have the four gospels, if all we had were these citations in secular sources, we would still have historical testimony that:
• Jesus existed
• Jesus claimed to be the Messiah
• Jesus performed amazing works
• Jesus had followers called Christians
• Jesus was executed by crucifixion by Pilate
• Jesus’ followers worshipped Him as God
And this is why most historians would say that the claim that Jesus never existed is absurd.
But there is even more reason to accept the gospels as reliable history. And that is…

The Gospels Contain Authentic Testimony

Historians have certain gauges or criteria they use to judge whether a document should be considered authentic history. And the gospels meet these criteria.
First, historians look for the criteria of multiple sources. If several different sources mention the same event, that adds weight to its authenticity. While the four gospels differ in certain thematic and stylistic directions, they clearly agree on the fundamental issues of Jesus life and ministry and teaching.
In the second place, historians evaluate documents on the basis of the criteria of similarity – dissimilarity. The criteria of similarity refers to the historical context. And of course the gospels fit into the first century context of Judaism like a hand in a glove. Jesus sounds and acts very much like a Jewish prophet would be expected to. At the same time, historians also look for examples of dissimilarity. In other words, if the gospels were just made up, they would only reflect the backdrop of first century Judaism. But if there is something in the gospels fundamentally dissimilar to that context, it would offer proof that the teaching or action was authentic rather than made up. And in the case of Jesus, there is one teaching that stands above all others in the criteria of dissimilarity- the death and resurrection of the Messiah. While the Pharisees believed in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, no one believed that the Messiah would come and die and be raised from the dead in the middle of history. The gospels meet this criteria of authenticity.
And in the third place, historians measure authenticity according to a standard called the criteria of embarrassment. Are there claims in the history that would have been so embarrassing to the authors that it is unlikely they would have just made them up? Last year when I preached on the gospel of Mark, I pointed out many of these kinds of details, such as:
-Jesus’ own family thought he was crazy (3:21).
-Jesus’ opponents claimed he was demon-possessed (3:22).
-Jesus could not perform miracles in his hometown (6:5).
-Jesus’ empty tomb and resurrection were first witnessed by women – whose testimony was considered invalid by Jews (16:4, 9).
By each of these criteria – multiple attestation; similarity/dissimilarity; embarrassment - the gospels pass muster as authentic historical records. They claim to be history; they read like history; and they are corroborated by history.
A moment ago I quoted from a skeptic named Dan Barker, and I want you to look at that quote again, because I believe it really gets to the heart of the issue:
“I am now convinced that the Jesus story is just a myth. Here’s why: 1) There is no external historical confirmation for the New Testament stories. 2) The New Testament stories are internally contradictory. 3) There are natural explanations for the origin of the Jesus legend. 4) The miracle reports make the story unhistorical.”
It is this fourth point that I want to focus on. According to Barker, the gospels should be ruled unhistorical out of hand simply because they contain reports of miracles.
But why make such a sweeping judgment? If you believe there is a God who created the universe by speaking it into existence, there is no reason to dismiss the miracle accounts of the gospels out of hand. The real reason critics like Barker reject the authenticity of the gospels has nothing to do with history and everything to do with philosophy. Philosophically, Dan Barker does not believe miracles are possible, and therefore he will not even consider the gospels as history. So the ultimate issue is not the reliability of the gospels, but the possibility of miracles, which in turn is ultimately the issue of whether there is a God at all.
This is why I would never debate the resurrection of Jesus with an atheist. They have no worldview that even allows for a supernatural event like the resurrection. Instead, I would begin with the more fundamental issue of the existence of God and the powerful scientific reasons to believe in God’s existence.
But for those of us who do believe in God, I hope that the evidence we have looked at today gives you every reason to see the gospels as belonging on the non-fiction shelf. And most of all, I hope its message will have the impact on you that real events about a real person who really lived and died and rose again should have.

1 comment:

  1. you sound just like lee strobel.... this is how i look at it.... just because someone claims to be something, does not make that person what he claims to be...... besides dont you have to take in cosideration the old testament? i mean noahs flood and how that the epic of gilgamesh is the exact same story but changed a bit to be fit into its own story ... the bible is like forrest gump.... it uses parts of other writings to make its own big writing...if noah is real then howcome there were people in china living before and after the flood? how about fossil evidence for evolution? if noah is not all the way real then the new testament is not all the way real either since noah is mentioned in the new testament.....