Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gospel Truth - Lesson 1: The Gospels as History

The gospels claim to be history, the written description of events that actually happened (Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31).  But what are we to make of these claims?

The Style of the Gospels
The consensus among scholars of the New Testament is that the gospels belong in the category of bioi, “lives,” ancient biographies.

Luke is special because his gospel is the first volume of a 2-volume work. Luke-Acts together are best described in terms of ancient historiography.

Those who wrote history in the ancient world laid out the qualities of good historiograpy (taken from Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend, p. 334):
1.  Choose a noble subject.
2.  Choose a subject that would be useful to the intended audience.
3.  Be impartial and independent in research and composition.
4.  Construct good narrative with an engaging beginning and ending.
5.  Engage in adequate preparatory research.
6.  Use good judgment in selection of materials.
7.  Accurately and appropriately order material.
8.  Make the narrative lively and interesting.
9.  Exercise moderation in topographical details.
10.  Compose speeches appropriate to the speaker and situation.

On this basis it is clear why the vast majority of scholars accept the gospels for what they claim to be, history.

History in the Ancient World
Ancient writers were just as concerned to get it right as are modern writers. Here are some excerpts from ancient historians on how to write history:

Polybius (200-118 BC), Histories
Book 12.4C3-5
3 and we see that generally the task of investigation has been entirely scamped by him, and this is the most important part of history. 4 For since many events occur at the same time in different places, and one man cannot be in several places at one time, nor is it possible for a single man to have seen with his own eyes every place in the world and all the peculiar features of different places, the only thing left for an historian is 5 to inquire from as many people as possible, to believe those worthy of belief and to be an adequate critic of the reports that reach him.

Book 34.4.1-3
4 And if there is anything that does not correspond with reality, we must set it down to change or error or poetic license, a combination of history, disposition, and myth. 2 Now the end aimed at by history is truth...3 and the end aimed at by disposition is vividness.

Lucian (AD 120-180), The Way to Write History

Section 39 The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened.

Section 47 Facts are not to be collected at haphazard, but with careful, laborious, repeated investigation; when possible, a man should have been present and seen for himself; failing that, he should prefer the disinterested account, selecting the informants least likely to diminish or magnify from partiality. And here comes the occasion for exercising the judgment in weighing probabilities.

This does not mean that ancient history is identical to modern history in all respects. Here are some important differences:
-Ancient historians did not always follow chronological order. Sometimes they ordered material topically (Suetonius was noted for this), or began in the middle of the life of a subject (such as Plutarch’s Caesar).
-Ancient historians summarized and paraphrased while modern historians focus on direct quotation. This is primarily due to the difference between an oral vs written culture.
-Ancient historians often taught lessons stemming from their subject matter, while modern historians often do not.

Some have argued that the gospels cannot be accepted as historical to modern minds because its writers were biased. “The writers are emotionally involved: they believe fervently in the story they are telling, which means they are not impartial observers” (Robert Funk, quoted in Boyd and Eddy, p. 397).

1.  All historical writing is done from a certain perspective. The mere act of selecting which details to include is an interpretive act.
2.  Those who deny the gospels describe what actually happened also have biases, primarily philosophical naturalism. “There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world” (Funk, quoted in Boyd and Eddy p. 372). One member of the Jesus Seminar has called upon his colleagues to “be honest with one another about biases and presuppositions (as has often not been the case)” (p. 374).
3.  Since all history is written from a perspective, to make this observation “tells us nothing whatever about the value of the information…It merely bids us be aware of the bias (and of our own for that matter), and to assess the material according to as many sources as possible” (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 89).

Can We Know Anything?
There are some historians who claim that all history – not just ancient history – is suspect. This is a reflection of postmodernism, which denies there is any truth to be known, and often assumes that historical claims are simply power plays, assertions by the “winners”.  “History now appears to be just one more fondationless, positioned expression in a world of foundationless, positioned expressions” (Keith Jenkins, quoted in Boyd and Eddy, p. 16).

The obvious response to the absolute skepticism is that it is self-refuting. In other words, does the writer quoted above believe his work is a “foundationless, positioned expression,” or does he believe it has actual, truthful meaning?

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