At Christmas millions will hear readings from the four Gospels in the New Testament. But how can we be sure that these accounts are true?
Over the last 200 years the Bible has come in for an unprecedented amount of criticism. But it is remarkable how well the Bible has stood the test. Emil Brunner tells an interesting story to prove the point:
"Two hundred years ago, scoffing Voltaire, probably the most famous man of his time prophesied that all would soon be over with the Bible. The house in which this boast was made is to-day one of the offices of a great Bible society. Voltaire's name is almost forgotten; the Bible has had, in the meantime, an incredible career of triumph throughout the world."
Perhaps one of the greatest causes for distrusting the New Testament records is a common fallacy; and the Bible more than any other book has been subject to this. It is the fallacy that says that if you know about the origins of something and see that these are very different to the final product, you have explained away the final product.
It is amazing how powerfully destructive a knowledge of origins can be. But, of course, to know the origin of something is often irrelevant as far as its present value, truth or effectiveness is concerned. A man may be born in a log cabin. But if he ends up, like Abraham Lincoln did, as President of the United States, he is the President no matter what his origins. Modern astronomy may have evolved from astrological guesswork in ancient Babylon. But if some men can travel to the moon and back, it is clearly more than guesswork now. So it is with the Bible.
The four Gospels may well be the result of godly men in the mid-first century AD collecting earlier written sources as "Source Criticism" has suggested. Or the Gospels may have resulted in part from regularly told short stories from the life of Jesus as "Form Criticism" has suggested. And most probably the Gospel writers put their material together, from whatever source, to emphasize a particular truth about God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, as "Redaction-Criticism" has suggested. But by itself all this tells us nothing about whether what we have got as the final product is true or false. Something in the Gospel narrative may be said by the scholars to come "from 'Q' (a hypothetical collection of Jesus' teachings) or from 'M' (Matthew's special source)" or to come "in the 'Form of a miracle-story'". But by itself that tells us nothing as to whether what comes like that is true or false. The mere fact that the report of a miracle may be given in a stylized way tells us little. The question "Was there a miracle there in the first place?" is a different question from "How has the report of the alleged miracle come down to us?"
The gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ was originally passed on by word of mouth. The Resurrection happened. The Apostles then spoke about it and "preached" it and they spoke about Jesus. Maybe some of them had taken down notes earlier of specific teachings of Jesus; but there is no record of these in the Acts of the Apostles. All we hear about is "preaching". All we can be certain of, until the Gospels themselves were composed, is an oral tradition. But such an oral tradition would have been nothing new. It would seem that there was an oral tradition in the Old Testament. You also get it in other ancient cultures. And from what we know of some of these, there is evidence of a very tight oral tradition. In the period of the passing on of material by word of mouth (before it is eventually written down) it is handed on in relatively careful ways. You can think, for example, of the ancient Greek Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey; here the verse form acts as a control. This can be paralleled at various stages of European literature.
Inevitably in the transmission of Old Testament material before it was written down there would have been stylization. That is to say, the way you tell one story is influenced by the way you tell a different story. Details may get lost. There is no evidence, however, that you can invent 'ad lib'. But - and it is a very big "but" - the New Testament is totally different to all of this. As has been well pointed out, "the period of the New Testament covers fewer decades than the Old Testament covers centuries." Eventually, after the initial preaching, the New Testament Gospels, or the sources behind, them came to be written down. What had been repeated orally by word of mouth was now in a manuscript (a hand-written document) and to that extent fixed.
But prior to that "fixing" had the "tradition" been radically modified? That is the big question. Had the oral tradition grown? Of course oral tradition can grow. The check, however, on the growth of any tradition is the fact of other people being around who know differently. They can let it be known that certain things are fiction. This means that the presence at large of "eyewitnesses" of any alleged event that has now become a "tradition" is of first rate importance.
This is relevant for our evaluation of the New Testament. Even at the end of the first century AD a few eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and of the events surrounding his death and resurrection were still alive. There were many more who had known and spoken with eyewitnesses. They heard their reports of what they had seen and heard. "Some people seem to imagine that, after the initial telling of the story [of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus] every eyewitness immediately and for ever withdrew from the whole affair. The fact is that right up to the beginning of the stage of writing, and well on into it, there were in the church surviving eyewitnesses whose oversight of the tradition must have been sufficient to ensure substantial accuracy in its transmission."
It is clear that there were written accounts of the gospel events earlier than the four Gospels as we have them (Luke 1.1). And we have Paul's statement on the resurrection appearances in the first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15.5-8). This was made ten or fifteen years earlier than the usual dating of Mark's Gospel. There were thus accounts of the Resurrection nearer to the events than the Gospels themselves. But leaving all that aside and just thinking about the finished product of Mark's Gospel, we need to remember that even this was published only thirty-five years or so after the Resurrection. That is about the same period as I have been vicar of Jesmond. I was instituted in January 1973. I can remember that quite vividly. I can remember many things from the 1970s at JPC. I could not necessarily give you a precise chronological account without looking at my diaries. But I could recount a lot of them as isolated events. Most important of all, if someone came along and said something major had happened at the church, when it hadn't, or totally misrepresented what had happened, I would be able to say they were talking nonsense.
And, of course, where there is a great deal of teaching by word of mouth memory becomes more important. It appears that the Jewish Rabbis employed memorizing techniques in their transmission of teaching. Clearly
Jesus was different to the other religious teachers of his day. We cannot assume that he copied their teaching techniques anymore than he copied their teaching. But in a culture where memory was important, a cavalier approach to the passing on of facts and information is not to be expected. In fact in such a culture memory is often developed to a high degree; and people have better memories than many of us have in our instant "electronic recall" world! This apparently is still true in parts of India where the training of the verbal memory is regarded as being very important.
Another check on the development of fictitious ideas and stories was the fact that the gospel was not private. This is very significant. It was the Gnostic sects that believed in "secret" revelations. It is not surprising that bizarre and obviously fictional stories about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus emerged from them. But the church under the Apostles believed that the gospel belonged to the church as a whole. There was something corporate about it. It was an "open secret".
There was a concern for the "unity" of the tradition. People wanted to check up on the facts. Paul himself wanted to consult with the Christians in Jerusalem. In one sense he was totally independent of Jerusalem and doing a quite separate work in his Gentile mission. But he decided early on to go up to Jerusalem to check things out. He decided to put before the leaders there "the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles ... for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain" (Gal 2.2). Paul clearly believed that he had received his commission and his gospel directly from the exalted Christ. He had not received it from the Jerusalem leaders (Gal 1.1). But he "checked it out" with them. There is no evidence for individual Christians in the early Apostolic church having "private" visions and on that basis generating "stories".
The Gospels are four different accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are quite unique in the history of literature. They are not biographies in the modern sense. A disproportionate amount of them is given over to the last week of Jesus' life. John says of what he has written in his Gospel, especially the "signs" - and the greatest sign is the Resurrection - that he has been selective. He has only written a fraction of what he could (John 21.25). He says: "these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20.31). John clearly had a theological purpose. But he is not for the moment suggesting he is fabricating "signs". He says he makes his theological points by selection from actual incidents and events - that is what he thought he was doing. There is not the slightest hint he was making his theological points by the creation of imagined incidents and events. But can we trust John?
John's Gospel had a famous "rehabilitation" in the mid 20th century. For many years it was said that John's Gospel was written late. It was said that the writer, whoever he was (and according to this view he certainly had nothing to do with the Apostle John of the twelve), just took Matthew, Mark and Luke and rewrote them! He rewrote the facts even! This was the reason, it was said, why John seems so different from the other three synoptic gospels ("synoptic" means literally "seeing together"). But the argument went on like this: if John could freely rewrite the other existing Gospels, why shouldn't those other three have done just the same thing with their sources? Why not, indeed?
Then Professor C.H.Dodd published Historical Tradition and the Fourth Gospel. He proved overwhelmingly that John was not dependent on the other Gospels for his sources. He did not rewrite them, therefore. He couldn't have done. Rather, Dodd showed, in John's Gospel we have an independent tradition of material from Southern Palestine. We can't dismiss what John says about the Resurrection.
So now when C.H.Dodd comes to look at the narratives in John about, for example, the Resurrection and in particular Peter and John's visit to the tomb on the first Easter morning, he sees evidence of eyewitness rather than fabrication. He sees John as an eyewitness in the account of the two Apostles getting to the tomb and seeing "the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen" (John 20.6-7).
The body of Jesus had been wrapped in long strips of cloth and spices had been put in between. The "burial cloth" was a separate piece of linen wrapped over the head and under the chin to keep the jaw in place. What John's Gospel says is that when John saw these "cloths" he believed. He believed, that is to say, not when he saw the empty tomb, but when he saw the "burial cloth" still separate from the rest of the linen wrappings that had been round the trunk and legs; it seems as though the body had passed through the linen cloths. This was no resuscitation. It was a resurrection! The body had not revived; it had disappeared. "The story," says Dodd, "is told with dramatic realism of which this writer is master. It looks something as near first-hand evidence as we could hope to get. Perhaps it is, and if so, it becomes the sheet anchor of belief in a 'bodily resurrection'."
It was Dorothy Sayers, who was quite convinced of the "eyewitness" nature of John's Gospel. Looking at the Gospel as a novelist herself and so from the viewpoint of someone used to "creating" or "fabricating stories", she says this: "It must be remembered that, of the four Evangelists, St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to anyone accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out the claim."
But John is not the only Gospel writer who tells us what he is aiming to do as he selects his material. Luke also tells us of his aims:
" Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account" (Luke 1.1-3).
Despite attempts to discredit Luke over the years, it is quite remarkable how he has withstood the test. Indeed what is noticeable is how modern experts who approach the New Testament from the view point of secular ancient history find Luke convincing. Those used to evaluating ancient documents and sources from the classical world of Greece and Rome say Luke is a good historian. A.N.Sherwin-White, a Roman Historian, was amazed at the scepticism of some New Testament critics. Having examined the New Testament, especially Luke and Acts, from the view point of Roman law and culture, he found it remarkably reliable.
One of the reasons why Luke has been "attacked" is because he has an interest in the miraculous. This is undeniable. But G.B.Caird, an Oxford New Testament scholar, has written this:
"Sober criticism cannot get behind the gospel record to a plain, common place tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith. Luke cannot justly be accused of exaggerating the miraculous element in his narrative. He omits Mark's most difficult miracle, the story of the barren fig tree. It is true that he also goes one step beyond Mark in recording a cure performed at a distance by the word of command; but this story, the healing of the centurion's servant, was taken from Q [a hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus], his most trustworthy source. He has sometimes been taken to task for emphasising the physical nature of the Resurrection since it is in his Gospel alone that the risen Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples. But here too he is simply reproducing with fidelity the sources on which he is relying. For in Acts 10.37-43 he puts into the mouth of Peter an almost credal utterance which is clearly derived from an Aramaic source and which represents the same picture of the Resurrection as we find in the Gospel."
How accurate is accurate?
But how accurate are the four Gospels? For example, did Jesus ever actually say, "I am the Resurrection and the life" as is reported in John's Gospel? R.P.C.Hanson, a bishop, who also was a professor of Theology, once suggested it was an incredible thing to believe that Jesus actually said such words. But is there not confusion here?
Of course, few would believe that Jesus actually uttered the syllables "I am the Resurrection and the life". Most know that Jesus spoke neither in English nor always in the Greek of John's Gospel but often in Aramaic. But what many, including experts, would want to say is that Jesus said something somewhere in Palestine which through the agency of tradition and translation has come down to us in English as "I am the Resurrection and the life." And we will not be misled if we take this as the gist of what he taught.
We need to understand the nature of New Testament reporting. It followed its own conventions. The Gospel writers saw no problem in "paraphrasing" or giving the "gist" of someone's speech and then putting it as direct speech. They would have put this between inverted commas if they'd been invented as we now do; but there were none in the original. R.T.France, formerly Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, comments: "The use of inverted commas in [our] translations of the Gospels may lead us to expect, on the basis of our own conventions in reporting speech, a degree of verbatim accuracy which the writer did not intend. So many of the sayings which the Gospels introduce with 'Jesus said' may in fact be paraphrases. But that does not mean they are inventions." Someone once said the Evangelists are intending "to report accurately the substance of Jesus' teaching in meaningful terms to their readers, not to record his precise words in every instance." It is, however, accurate enough. And Jesus himself, of course, promised that the Holy Spirit would enable his disciples to remember what he had taught (John 14.26). So that is why today at the beginning of the 21st century we can, and must, trust these apostolic reports from the Gospel writers.
The Christmas message
And that is why you have to take seriously the readings you will hear, once again, this Christmas. John's Gospel goes back to Jesus himself. Luke is particularly concerned with facts - and was a doctor. That probably explains his concern with gynaecology and his interest in the birth of Jesus.
But what about Matthew? Some try to dismiss Matthew's account of the birth story of Jesus as a midrash. In Judaism a midrash was essentially a commentary on a passage of the Old Testament which then "took off". The midrashist had a text in front of him which he elaborated and embellished, often in a most fanciful way. But the text was always the starting point. Matthew, however, is clearly not starting with a text. He has a series of traditions about the birth and childhood of Jesus to narrate, and into these he weaves scriptural references. He is not adapting the narratives to fit Old Testament texts. If anything he is adapting the Old Testament to fit the narratives. The quotation in Matthew 2.23 ("he shall be called a Nazarene") is a very drastic adaptation - it has no known reference in earlier Scripture!
Matthew is not, therefore, taking the Old Testament and then writing myths to fit. If he were doing that, he surely would have chosen more evocative sections of the Old Testament. In addition we know from other contemporary Jewish practice that basic events were never concocted out of texts. Most significant of all, the Old Testament said that the Messiah would be born of David's line. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was believed to be the Messiah, Why then invent a story that separates Joseph (who was of David's line) from the process of conception?
The New Testament tells us that at the first Christmas God became man - "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1.14) - to live, to die for our sins and to rise again to give us new life and his Holy Spirit. That is why we celebrate. We can do so with confidence.
(Some of this Coloured Supplement is an edited and adapted version of chapter 5 of David Holloway's book Where did Jesus Go?)