The Gospels as gospel.

Why does there seem to be so much more of a burden of proof on the facts surrounding the life of Jesus that for other historical figures? In his book ‘Jesus A Short Life’  John Dickson reveals that Jesus is mentioned in at least 11 texts from the first and second centuries. Some of these are more relevant than others, but there is no doubt about (as Dickson says ‘no one in the know doubts) the existence of Jesus as an historical figure. His appearance in so many sources is seen as reliable proof.

Even Richard Dawkins agrees. That’s a fairly hefty vote of confidence.

So we have a (small) pile of reliable sources. But then we have the Gospels, which introduce Jesus as a charismatic miracle worker.

Jesus healing the blind

I always thought that the New Testament was written an impossibly long time after Jesus lived. It was part of my atheist manifesto, if you like. Actually though, Paul’s letter were begun only 20 years after the death of Jesus and the Gospel of Mark was written between 35 and 40 years after his death.

While visiting my grandmother today she told me a story about her father (fined for poaching swans during the 1920’s. Great tale – my boys loved it). Nan had heard it from him, and then she repeated it to me and I’ve got no reason to think it isn’t accurate (although the part where he dropping his pants for no discernable reason sounds embellished. And kind of bizarre).This time frame; about 90 years, is comparable to the memories of those writing the Gospels.

In a society in which most of the population was illiterate it was obviously important that stories could be trusted to remain unchanged through many retellings. According to people who make it their business to know this type of thing, oral history could be relied on to be quite accurate. When we apply this fact to an analysis of the Gospels, it could, if you want it to, give them a great deal of weight. Of course, the stories of Jesus could be totally fictitious and made up; just because they were written shortly after they were said to have occurred doesn’t necessarily make them anymore valid. But to my mind, it does make them a BIT more believable.

Like so many other things to do with this whole religion caper, you take from it what you want. If you want to discount evidence, then its usually possible to do this without too much anguish and historical betrayal. If, on the other hand, you want something it to be incredibly significant then you can probably put together a pretty convincing argument. Of course, if you’re sitting on the fence then you’re going to be no better off than you were to start with.

Dickson, and others that I have read, claim that precisely because oral history was so reliable and because we are willing to take much of the historical fact seriously, then when we come to the miracles that Jesus performed we should not immediately discount them. Given that there is so much evidence to support them, we should not put a more strenuous burden of proof on these miracles that we do on the other activities in the gospels. As Dickson says ‘the dogmatic rejection of miracles has little to do with evidence and a lot to do with existing assumptions about what is possible in the universe’ (p82).

aaaaaaaaaand, he’s lost me.

I’m trying; honestly, I’m trying. But if you’re going to suggest that the laws of nature and physics were looking the other way for a few years in Galilee during the first century, then yes I’m going to need more. The burden of proof IS going to be greater if there is going to be such a dramatic claim. I’m not saying that I discount them immediately on principle (I love me a good convincing ghost story) but I’m not going to take such claims as gospel (bada boom).

The historical records may be incredibly reliable and believable. But I’m going to have to stop you at the miracles.  Claiming that they are just as valid an historical fact as other events isn’t believable. To me, that is. What do you think?

If you want to know more about the gospels as eyewitness testimony then you could read Bachmans ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony’ . Good luck with it though; I’ve been on chapter 2 for about 6 months. Let me know if its worth persevering.

18 thoughts on “The Gospels as gospel.

  1. Not totally sure what you are saying here but I can tell you that miracles still happen. I know that for sure and certain.

  2. I figured out a while ago in my search that there just aren’t enough “facts” to convince me of the Bible’s factual veracity. I’ve learned to read these stories literarily, not literally. How do they inform my spirit, not necessarily my mind? I’m not discounting the mind at all. Just giving space for the spirit to absorb a bigger perspective. One factual thing I did learn is that in the ancient, pre-scientific world, miracles were seen more as a sudden, unexpected change of heart. Common people just didn’t have the knowledge of how the universe operates to the degree we do (of course they had a practical understanding). And magicians and tricksters abounded. They were pretty sophisticated debunkers. So, when something strange happened, it wasn’t so much its “unscientific” basis that drew them in but how it changed the way they looked at things. Reading Jesus’ miracles in this light helps me to see that the emphasis is not on the act but the change in spirit. Factually, I’m neutral on the miracles. I just don’t know. But if I read the stories, listening for the teller’s inner response and not so much the facts he may or may not be accurately reporting after so many decades, I begin to discover a deeper, spiritual truth.

    As always, you ask great questions.

    • I have a lot of respect for those who make the shift from reading the Bible “literally” to “literarily,” as you say. That is definitely a move in the right direction. But from reading your comment it seems there are some big parts of the Bible that you do still interpret literally (God is real, the afterlife is real, Jesus is the son of God, etc.). Maybe I’m misreading you, though. I do get lots of emotional meaning out of most books I read, even completely fictional ones. Do you find that there are more, and/or more important, “deeper spiritual truths” in the Bible than there are in, say, Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ [or insert your favorite novel here]?

      • Whoa! Big questions! Not sure I can answer adequately in a short post. First, let me say that I view the Bible as a library of books written, redacted, edited, and generally messed with over a period of about 1200 years by a particular ancient culture that wrestled with the biggest questions we humans can dream up. I find the Bible has more questions than answers. It is, for me (because I’m an artist) more a work of art than science. As such, it has to be approached not only with the mind but the heart and soul, as well. In the messy process of producing the Bible, that culture stumbled over and expressed some very important spiritual truths. The ancient word “israel” means a person who wrestles with God. “God” is, at the very least, the desire to ask and know answers to the Big Questions.

        Some of us (like Eva) simply can’t sit still without asking. We want to know. Doesn’t mean we do or will know, but something is drawing us into something greater. Within the biblical context, that “something greater” is signified and represented by God. Again, within the biblical context, concepts like God or the afterlife or the meaning of the Jesus story are “doorways” into the Something Greater that is constantly bugging us. If you are not so bugged and just haven’t the desire to dive into it, the Bible, like a Jackson Pollack, is just so much scribbling.

        I’ve read some of the “scriptures” of other religions and, personally, I’ve found they are also wrestling with the big questions. Culturally, they’re expressed differently but seem to me to be on the same track. Does that mean I think all religions are the same? How do I know? I barely know the one I was born into. How can I judge any others? And for me, I find deep spirituality expressed in all the arts. The best art, after all, is produced by people asking the big questions. Including Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. But these are largely individual expressions.

        The Bible is the expression of an entire culture over dozens of generations. It has been “time tested”. And, thousands of years later, we continue to test it, as we should. The wrestling continues.

    • Skip, I just read this sentence and thought of you; ‘ everyone seeks answers, mostly to questions that are not very important. The great concern in life should be to discover which are the right questions.then, even if you rarely get answers, you are at least journeying in the right direction’.

  3. I think you are spot-on when you talk about suspending the laws of physics. We have lots of evidence already that some people poach birds, so your grandmother’s story begins with a head-start. We don’t have any other evidence for people causing the blind to see at a single touch, or other miracles like these. Meanwhile, we *do* have a lot of evidence of people making amazing claims in order to make their story more exciting, and evidence of epic legends that are told under an appearance of truth but are widely acknowledged to be fictional.

  4. My whole deal abou the miracles is if I believe Jesus was God, then he created the rules (of physics) and can break ’em any time he dang well pleases. That said, I wish he’d do it a bit more these days! 🙂

  5. This is a challenging post. Good for you. I also have read “The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony,” and I share some of your frustration. While the author does provide a number of valid insights, he also allows his presuppositions to dominate a little too much (don’t we all). If you are interested in a good defense of the miraculous element, I would recommend “Miracles” by C. S. Lewis. I’m not sure if it will resonate with Post Moderns, but I was especially intrigued by his distinction between miracles of the old creation and miracles of the new creation. While ancient people did not have the extent of scientific knowledge we do, they knew enough to know what was normal and what wasn’t. The early church survived because the earliest disciples were convinced that Jesus had literally come back from the dead, and they also knew this was outside of what was natural. We may choose to reject that view, but historical honesty should compel us to recognize that this is what the earliest disciples of Jesus believed.

    • I have “Miracles”; I haven’t read it because I found that “Mere Christianity” didn’t appeal to me as much as it did to everyone else I’ve spoken to (but I loved ‘The Screwtape Letters’). But I’ll go and dig it out and start this afternoon.

  6. The thing about the gospels is that you can see the story getting bigger and more theologically polished from the earliest written (Mark) to later gospels (Matthew and Luke) to the last written (John).

    Even according to the most conservative scholars, John was written about A.D. 90, or roughly 60 years after the events it purports to describe. (I think most scholars would date it a good deal later than that.) And some of the most quotable things Jesus allegedly said, such as John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world…”) or the “I am” statements (“I am the way, the truth and the life…”) don’t appear in the other gospels, so you have a situation in which three gospel writers didn’t bother to record what are clearly the most important things Jesus ever said (if indeed he said them), with entire decades passing in which the available gospels made no mention of these statements until the Gospel of John introduced them. That isn’t the sort of thing a historian would consider credible.

    In other words, I think we can see the growth of the Jesus story within the gospels themselves, to the point that that legend is probably obscuring the historical figure.

    BTW, Rosa Rubicondor has a fascinating post about the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus:

  7. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Yet people yearn to share powerful spiritual experiences that lose something in the telling, so they summon up amazing images that others can grasp. Soon the telling becomes more important than the experience, and doubters get slammed for “harshing everyone’s mellow.”

    Did Jesus walk on water? Did he spread the loaves and fishes? Better, perhaps, to live with the ambiguity and ask instead, “Am I in touch with the essence of the story?”

    A friend said, “I want a spiritual experience, but I don’t believe in spirit.” As suggested in a comment above, perhaps it’s better to live with the questions than to force out arbitrary answers. The Bible may be the Word of God, but that doesn’t mean we understand it. Every interpretation becomes a sect.

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