Thursday, May 2, 2013

Christian Origins: 10. Reliability of the Gospels

10. Reliability of the Gospels

There is hard textual evidence that the Gospel writers had no qualms about changing and redacting what the other writers had written. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and even John do not seem to be original works but drawn on Mark and possibly Q (assuming the Q hypothesis). Mark seems to be drawing on Old Testament with its passion narrative being a collage of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and Psalms.

We also do not have the originals autographs of these gospels which are likely lost forever. The authorship is suspect and the claims that they were written by eye witnesses cannot be sustained. None of the non-Christian contemporaries seem to have preserved any of these traditions. As discussed earlier, they don't seem to have noticed that the earth shook and zombies walked around when Jesus died or that the Sun went dark for three hours. They are unaware that Herod killed all the infants in Bethlehem.

Given the mass of negative evidence, we have no reason whatsoever, to consider the Gospels to be works of ancient history, let alone accurate history. They are but religious texts, dripping with symbolism. They are more like hagiographies than like historical accounts. The authors were writing pious theological fiction.

The Obscure Jesus

It is under the weight of this mountain of evidence that historical-critical scholarship has come to the conclusion that Jesus of the Gospels, the wonder man who shook the world with his short ministry is but a legend. Their consensus is that Jesus was likely, an obscure figure in history.

Much of the scholarship consequently takes a minimalist view. This view is that there was likely a man called Jesus who preached in Galilee and probably got himself killed in Jerusalem. But he was hardly noticed by anyone outside his small circle of followers. Itinerant preachers were dime a dozen then. Jesus was just one of the many. We cannot know what exactly he preached. The synoptics may give us clues letting us take a guess. But we cannot know for sure what exactly they were. Navigating all of these problems to get to the 'inspired word of God' or historical 'facts' is an exercise many Biblical scholars have been engaging in for a few centuries now.

The Jesus Seminar (by the Webster Institute) concluded that only about 18% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were likely to be authentic. The Jesus Seminar is of course on the liberal left of scholarship. And the more conservative the scholar is, the more of the Gospels that is attributed to Jesus. Gerd Lüdemann argues that only 5% of the saying attributed to Jesus are genuine. [1] Scholars like Robert M. Price throw it all out because we simply do not have enough evidence to claim anything! [2] [3]

New Testament Minimalism

On the extreme left of this spectrum of scholarly views on Christianity is one view that Christianity originated as a mystery cult (like the Pauline cult) which did not have a Jesus who actually incarnated and walked this earth. According to this view, Jesus of Christianity was originally a mythical being, an archangel. The earthly incarnation story was a later addition to Christianity. [4] This is a fringe theory but has been gaining traction in the last decade or so.

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Apostolic Traditions ]


[1] Gerd Lüdemann, "The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did", Prometheus Books (1999).
[2] Robert M. Price, "Deconstructing Jesus", Prometheus Books (2000).
[3] Robert M. Price, "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?", Prometheus Books (2003)
[4] Earl Doherty, "The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?", Canadian Humanist Publications (2000).

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