Can the Gospels be Trusted? – dialogue with a skeptic

Posted: September 7, 2013 in Bible, Culture, Faith
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dillon:  We don’t really know much of anything about Jesus.   Everything Christians think they know comes from propaganda accounts written centuries later.  Actually, I don’t think there’s even any way to know if Jesus was a real, historical person.

Sarah:  The idea that Jesus might have been a myth has been pretty well discredited.  That was a common hypothesis back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that was only because people didn’t have easy access to all the historical evidence that proves Jesus was a real person.

Dillon:  So you think you can prove Jesus was real?

Sarah:  Well, I don’t know if “prove” is exactly the right word.  It depends on how strict you’re going to be.  I mean, if you want to get really technical, I can’t “prove” to you that I exist.  Anything I say or do to you could be brushed aside as part of a dream or a hallucination.

Dillon:  I’m not going to be that difficult!

Sarah:  Ok, good!  So then, we can use the word “prove” in the normal, everyday sense?

Dillon:  I don’t know…maybe.  What do you mean?

Sarah:  I just mean that we normally use the word “prove” when enough admissible evidence has been presented to convince reasonably unbiased reviewers that the assertion in question is most probably accurate.

Dillon:  Um…you sound like a lawyer.

Sarah:  Sorry…I’m a pre-law student.  Kinda comes with the territory.  But it’s still a pretty good definition, isn’t it?  That’s how we use it in the courts.  To “prove” something is to convince an unbiased jury that a lawyer’s assertion is correct.  So if a lawyer says a guy did X, then we consider his case “proven” when the unbiased jury sees enough evidence to convince them that guy actually did X.

Dillon:  But the jury could be wrong.  Maybe there’s some other piece of evidence they aren’t considering that would change their minds.  Like maybe the guy was actually in the hospital in a coma when the crime was committed.

Sarah:  Sure, that’s why we say nothing can ever be absolutely, 100% proven.  There’s always the possibility that there’s some unknown piece of evidence that would change our view of the facts.  But, the more evidence we have and the more it supports our conclusion, the less likely it becomes that there is some unknown piece of evidence out there that would completely change things.  For instance, if we have video footage of the guy at the crime scene and his fingerprints on a meter receipt dated just minutes after the crime, it’s pretty unlikely that we’re going to find evidence that he was actually in a coma at the time.

Dillon:  Ok, fair enough.  So can you prove that Jesus was real using that definition of “prove”?

Sarah:  Yeah, I think so.  First, we have Jewish records that talk about him.  A Jewish historian named Josephus, writing at the end of the first century A.D., mentions him by name and even talks about events in his life and names family members.[1]  Several Jewish rabbis from the 2nd and 3rd centuries also talk about Jesus.  They’re pretty good evidence because they’re what we might call “hostile witnesses”.  They clearly don’t like Jesus or his followers, but they acknowledge his existence.  We also have Roman witnesses like the historian Tacitus who write at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2ndHe not only mentions Jesus but also says that he was executed by the governor Pilate.[2]  At least three other Roman writers mention Jesus as well.[3]

Dillon: Huh.  I didn’t know any of that.  Ok…that seems like pretty good evidence that Jesus existed.  Do those guys tell us anything about what Jesus was actually like, though?

Sarah:  Not really.  I mean, some of the Jewish sources mention a few details about his teaching, but not much.

Dillon:  Ok, so there’s enough evidence to say that Jesus was a real person, but Christians don’t just say that he existed.  They also say that he did a bunch of crazy stuff and act like they know all about him.  But they don’t, really.  They’re just guessing.

Sarah:  I don’t think that’s true.  First, a surprising amount of what Christians say about Jesus is at least corroborated by the Jewish and Roman sources.  Those sources confirm the time period when Jesus lived, the names of several of his followers and family, key elements of his teaching…they even confirm that he did miracles!

Dillon:  Sorry, but I have a pretty hard time believing that.

Sarah:  Ok, I might have gotten a little carried away there, but Josephus called him a “wise man who performed surprising works.”[4]    

Dillon:  That’s not necessarily a miracle.

Sarah:  No, but it seems like a pretty likely reference to miracles, doesn’t it?  Besides, the Jewish Mishna accused him of practicing magic and sorcery.  The Mishna even claims that’s why he was executed…for practicing magic.[5]

Dillon:  Is magic the same thing as miracles? 

Sarah:  No, from a Jewish perspective, magic was from the devil.  But remember:  hostile witnesses.  They wanted to discredit Jesus and his followers, so they attributed his miracles to evil forces.  But what’s interesting is that they didn’t call him a fraud.  They admitted that he did supernatural works…they just claimed his power was from the dark side.

Dillon:  Ok, that’s interesting.  But it’s still just some really big-picture stuff.  Is there really any way to know what Jesus was like or even exactly what he taught?  I still think the Christian belief about Jesus is wishful thinking.  It’s not like we have detailed accounts of his teaching from his contemporaries.  All the detailed “accounts” came long after the fact.

Sarah:  But we do have detailed accounts from his contemporaries.  There’s one account from a Jewish tax collector, one from a medical doctor who interviewed eyewitnesses and two from his closest friends.

Dillon:  Now wait a minute.  You’re talking about the Gospels, aren’t you?

Sarah:  Sure.  Matthew was written by a Jewish tax collector, Luke by a medical doctor who conducted interviews, Mark wrote down Peter’s recollections of Jesus and John wrote from his own experience.

Dillon:  But those books were written long after the fact!

Sarah:  That’s simply not true.  I mean, sure, there are some people who argue that the Gospels were written hundreds of years later, but the evidence says otherwise.  All the Gospels are mentioned by name and quoted by various writers by the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the 2nd century, so the Gospels had to have been written earlier.  Most scholars, even very critical ones, agree that they were written between the 60’s and the 80’s…early 90’s at the latest and that’s only for John.

Dillon:  But didn’t Jesus die in like the 30’s?

Sarah:  Yes, but there were still eyewitnesses alive in the period scholars agree the Gospels were written, so the writers still had access to the first-hand accounts.  Besides, in an oral culture, keeping a story accurate over a couple of decades was no big deal.  So there’s no reason to think that a 30 year gap between the events and the recording of them would be a problem.

Dillon:  Ok, but that’s not the big problem.  The big problem is that the Gospels were all written by Jesus’ followers!

Sarah:  Yeah, so?

Dillon:  It means they’re biased!

Sarah:  Ok, let’s just say for the sake of the argument that they are biased.  What does that mean?

Dillon:  It means that we can’t trust what they say about Jesus!

Sarah:  That’s not fair at all.  If a reporter who supports the president quotes him, does that mean that we can’t trust the reporter’s quote?

Dillon:  No, but he might be tempted to edit it a little.

Sarah:  Why?

Dillon:  To make the president sound better!

Sarah:  So…our hypothetical supporter feels free to “improve” the president’s actually statements?  But if he doesn’t like what the president says and feels like he has to alter it before the public sees it, then why would he support the guy in the first place? 

Dillon:  Hm.  So are you saying that being a supporter means he’s actually more likely to report the president…or Jesus…accurately?

Sarah:   I’m just saying it’s possible.  A true loyalist is likely to revere what his hero says and be careful to faithfully report it.  If he doesn’t think what the guy says and does is worth reporting then he isn’t really a supporter…and the bias you’re so worried about goes away. Just because someone’s a supporter doesn’t necessarily mean that their accounts can’t be trusted.  Isn’t it more likely that someone’s enemies are likely to distort what they actually said and did?

 Dillon:  Well…yeah, of course. 

Sarah:  So just because the Gospels were written by supporters of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean that their accounts can’t be trusted.  It’s ok to have a healthy skepticism when investigating things, but you can’t start with an unjustified assumption of inaccuracy. 

Dillon:  Ok, I see your point.  It’s probably not fair to assume that Gospels are all false.  And your point about someone’s enemies being more likely to distort things is interesting.  So are the statements in the …what did you call it, the Mishna?…about Jesus being a sorcerer distortions?

Sarah:  Well, I’m not sure if they’re distortions but they’re certainly a different perspective!  But isn’t it interesting that both the Gospels and the hostile Jewish writings agree that Jesus did things that could only be explained by him having supernatural power?  They call it different things – maybe that’s where bias comes in – but they agree that those kinds of things happened.

Dillon:  But don’t all the details of Jesus’ life and teaching come from the Gospels?

Sarah:  Sure, but who else would report all the details?  Jesus’ enemies weren’t going to take the time to write detailed accounts of someone they wanted to make go away.

Dillon:  What do you mean? 

Sarah:  I just mean that Jesus and his followers were a thorn in the side of the Jewish leadership of the 1st and 2nd centuries.  They caused a significant split within Judaism.  Huge numbers of faithful Jews accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah while others didn’t, so there was a lot of religious tension going on.  For the Jewish leaders, the best thing to do would be to not stir the pot and let things settle down in the hopes that everyone would just forget about this Jesus guy.  In fact, the book of Acts reports that they adopted exactly that strategy.[6]

Dillon:  Didn’t really work out for them, though, did it?

Sarah:  Nope.  Jesus and his followers didn’t go away.  In fact, this whole thing we call Christianity just got bigger and bigger.  But that’s not really my point…

Dillon:  I think I see what you’re saying.  People with a vested interest in getting Jesus to disappear from the limelight wouldn’t have written detailed accounts about him.

Sarah:  And would you trust them if they did?

Dillon:  No, probably not.  I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to trust what a man’s enemies say about him over what those who love him say.  There’s probably going to be some bias on both sides, but his enemies would be somewhat more likely to twist things or make stuff up.

Sarah:  Yeah, there probably is going to be some bias.  But bias doesn’t necessarily mean inaccuracy, at least in the case of supporters.  And when claims about things like basic teachings and miracles are confirmed by other sources – even hostile ones – isn’t that pretty good evidence that those things actually happened?

Dillon:  I’ll have to think about it.  I see what you’re saying.  Maybe the Gospels can tell us a lot about what Jesus was actually like.

Sarah:  That sounds pretty good.  I mean, I think everything the Gospels say about Jesus can be trusted, but “a lot” is way better than “nothing”!  Why don’t you read one of the Gospels from this new, slightly less skeptical, perspective and we can talk about it later.  Would you be open to that?

Dillon:  Sure.  That might be fun.  Which one should I read?

Sarah:  Well, a lot of people recommend John as the first Gospel to read, but given what we’ve been talking about, I think I might recommend Luke.  He’s kind of a “give me the facts” guy and I think you’ll appreciate his approach.

Dillon:  Ok, Luke it is.

[1] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18 3:3; 20 9:1.

[2] Tacitus, Annals, book XV

[3] Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars (cf. Claudius, sec. 25 and Nero, sec. 16); Julius Africanus, Chronography, XVIII, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10:96-97.

[4] Antiquities, 18 3:3

[5] Sanhedrin, 43a

[6] Acts 5

  1. If I may…Mark was the earliest gospel written. Luke came 20-30 years after Mark, and by then the legend had obscured the man pretty much completely. I don’t believe Luke, and certainly not John can be considered reliable historical sources for Jesus. They tell us what Jesus’ followers believed 50 years after the fact, but almost nothing about Jesus the man.

    Let me say, though, that I believe Jesus did exist. Fictional characters do not found major religions. The idea that a made-up person started this movement is simply ludicrous. It’s sort of what astronomers do: they can’t “see” the planet around a distant star, but they can deduce its existence from the gravitational pull. Jesus is like that planet.

    The earliest Christian writing that survives are some of the epistles of Paul. Galatians and 1 Thessalonians, for example, were written about 20 years before the earliest gospel, Mark. If you are interested in early sources, start with those two and 1 Corinthians. The problem is that Paul was not at all interested in Jesus as a person, and he tells us next to nothing about the human Jesus. We have to ask why. The answer is that he, apparently, didn’t think that Jesus the man was terribly relevant to the message. That, honestly, is the best evidence we have that Jesus existed. Paul just takes it as accepted. He never met Jesus, but he talked to people who had.

    And there is independent corroboration of other persons mentioned in the gospels, most notably James, who was Jesus’ brother, and who took over as leader of the group when Jesus died.

    So, while the gospels, especially Matthew, Luke and John are pretty much useless as evidence for Jesus, between Paul and Mark, we have enough–barely, but enough–to be reasonably confident that Jesus did actually live.

    Whether he was the messiah, whether he was raised from the dead (which is Paul’s description of what happened), whether he performed miracles, those are articles of faith an cannot be proven. Or disproven. As for the miracles, please be aware that the Eastern Roman Empire was pretty much crawling with ‘wonder workers’. Contemporaries fully believed in magic, and even Jesus’ detractors took it for granted that such miracles were possible, just as they took it for granted that pagans could work such wonders. It wasn’t really Jesus’ miracles that set him apart. There was a contemporary named Apollonius of Tyana, and a lot of people believed that he performed miracles and was, somehow divine.

    I discuss a lot of this. My blog is secular, but not atheistic. It’s historical, examining what the NT tells us, and what it doesn’t.

    • Best evidence places Mark in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I would tend to say early 60’s but the 7Q5 fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls appears to be an excerpt from Mark 6:52-53 and that fragment has been dated to the early-mid 50’s. So, Mark may have been a bit earlier.

      Best evidence places Luke’s writing at about 62. This is the best way to explain the cliff-hanger ending of Acts (which followed after Luke’s Gospel) in which we can’t tell from Acts what happened to Paul after his imprisonment in Rome…because the book of Acts simply stops narrating at this point. Since this imprisonment ended in late 62, the absence of an explanation about what happened to Paul is best accounted for by a mid-62 early terminus for the composition of Luke; i.e. Luke didn’t tell us what happened to Paul because at the time of his writing he simply didn’t know. Moreover, the absence of statements in either Luke or Acts about the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 AD makes it very unlikely that Luke was writing after 70.

      John is often dismissed as being historically accurate, but the arguments for this are not really arguments at all. Most of them boil down to an anti-supernatural bias and an assumption that because John is more “theological” than the Synoptic Gospels, he must have been fudging with the historical data. But the reality is that John is filled with historical references (geographical details, official titles, names, events, etc.) that have been corroborated by other sources. And even many secular historians take Luke as a reliable historical source. The dismissal of Luke and John as unreliable is simply presuppositional.

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