Tuesday, February 8, 2022

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Pt 8

In this article, we review and briefly explain the remaining 5 categories under which critics and skeptics bring up accusations of contradictions, discrepancies, or errors against the Gospel writers. And then we will examine three or four difficult cases that are often touted as undeniable proof of contradictions or errors in the Synoptic Gospels.

3. Chronological Problems. In part, we have already addressed this problem in a previous article, where we pointed out that all three Synoptic Gospels follow a general geographical/chronological order, within which stories, discourses, and sayings of Jesus are brought together because of common themes or topics--without violating the Greco-Roman historiographical conventions of the first century. We must remember that from the time of St. Agustine, it was recognized that the Gospel writers did not intend to write a detailed itinerary of Jesus' ministry with every event in its strict chronological order, but at different points in the narrative arrange material under common themes or topics so as to make certain points about Jesus' identity or the true meaning and significance of Jesus' teaching. "Apart from the infancy and passion/resurrection narratives, the gospels simply do not provide enough information about the time and place of the incidents recorded to enable them to be fitted together with confidence chronologically precise harmony...But if one applies the principle of assuming a chronological connection between two portions of the Synoptics only when the text explicitly presents one, then the apparent contradictions of sequence vanish" (Blomberg, "Contradictions in the Synoptics?" The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 127).

4. Omissions. As to why the Gospel writers omit various stories or sayings of Jesus that were found in the sources they used is quite impossible to say; every scholarly attempt to explain these omissions is at best an educated guess based on available evidence. The omissions fall into one of two categories a) omissions of entire passages or b) omissions of various details within passages. For instance, Luke, in his portrayal of Jesus and his ministry, follows a geographical outline that traces Jesus as he travels through Galilee, Samaria, Judaea, Peraea; but he omits what Mark describes as Jesus' "withdrawal from Galilee" (Mk. 6:45-8:26). And in the second category, there is Jesus' well-known teaching on divorce and remarriage. As worded in Mark and Luke (Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18), it appears that under no circumstances does Jesus ever permit divorce and remarriage; but as it is worded in Matthew, Jesus prohibits divorce and remarriage, "except for porneia (i.e., "sexual immorality, marital unfaithfulness, adultery"). Some critics charge that Matthew has changed Jesus' absolute command as reflected in Mark and Luke because the church, in Matthew's time, found it too severe or impractical. "Yet although the exegesis of these passages is complicated by a number of ambiguous grammatical features, the most convincing solution still remains the one which sees Matthew as simply spelling out what Mark and Luke leave implicit. The debate about divorce in Jewish circles in Jesus' day pitted the followers of the famous teacher, Hillel, against those of his rival, Shammai. The former took a more liberal view, permitting divorce in a wide variety of circumstances; the latter, only in the case of adultery. In other words, both sides agreed on the exception which Matthew adds, so Jesus could have safely presupposed it without fear of misunderstanding" (Ibid., pp. 131-132).

5. Composite Speeches. Matthew, who in part presents Jesus "as the Prophet like Moses" predicted in Deut. 18:14-18, punctuates his narrative of Jesus' life with five major discourses or "sermons" (chs. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). These discourses are unparalleled in Mark's book, while having several partial parallels which are scattered throughout in Luke's work but having a different context than the ones in which they have been placed by Matthew. As a result, some critics believe Matthew took scattered sayings and then creatively "wove them together" into the five major discourses, filling them in with material of his own making. However, since rabbis in Jesus' time not only gave memorable proverbial sayings, but also regularly spoke in coherent, organized discourse on various themes or topics, many short discourses by Jesus on various topics were either memorized or written down. Therefore, it is more likely that Matthew took these short but complete discourses of Jesus and added related material from other sources that helped round out the five major discourses. This was an acceptable practice in ancient historiography. And in some sections of Luke where similar discourses appear to be given in different locales, we may have examples of itinerant repetition.

6. Apparent "Doublets." This category applies to what appears as repeated incidents common to all the Gospels or just to those within one of the Gospels. This involves records of Jesus doing similar miracles, healings, and feeding the poor that appear in slightly differing contexts, such as Jesus feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000 in Matthew and Mark. However, the different contexts and the difference in details indicates that though similar in many ways, these incidents are separate and may have been done for different reasons, which have to be discerned from the context in which they have been placed by the Gospel writers. But they are not, as some think, "fabricated fillers" designed merely to make Jesus look greater than he actually was.

7. Variations in Names and Numbers. This last category involves apparent discrepancies between Gospel parallels that seem to be a confusion of names and numbers. These are often compounded by textual variants where there are variant spellings, or where letters and symbols similar in appearance were often used to represent different numerals. For example, in the story where Jesus heals the demoniac "Legion," Mark and Luke say he did so in the region of the Gerasenes (Mk. 5:1; Lk. 8:26), while Matthew says he did so in the region of the Gadarenes. Apparently, there were two cities across the lake from Galilee, Khersa and Gerasa, the one close to the shore and the other 35 mi. inland; yet both were commonly referred to as Gerasa. Matthew, sensing the ambiguity, gives the name of the province in which Jesus performed the miracle. And then there the complex variations of the names found in the family genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38. Several explanations have been given, but the best explanation is that Matthew is giving the legal succession list for Joseph as a descendant of David, while Luke's genealogy refers to Joseph's actual parents and their family tree.  And as for confusing numbers, Matthew 21:7 has often been read as though Jesus straddled two animals as he rode in triumph into Jerusalem, contrary to what the other Gospels say.  However, ambiguous grammar is the problem; most commentators state that the second "them" in the sentence refers to the garments placed on the donkey's colt and that Jesus sat on them, not on two animals at the same time.

Well, though I've only touched the highlights, I think I've shown that there are reasonable explanations and solutions to many so-called "discrepancies" or "contradictions."  And so, as far as I am concerned, the overall historical reliability of the Gospels remains intact, and the certainty of what they record of Jesus' life, words, and deeds still stands.   

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

 "Apparent and Contradictions" and the Four Gospels, Pt 7

In the previous article, we began exploring 7 categories under which most "alleged" contradictions or discrepancies fell, and which are often raised by critics and skeptics as proof that the Gospels are historically unreliable. We had covered "conflicting theology" and "the practice of paraphrasing" and were preparing to look at other 5 categories.  However, it occurred to me that there were a couple of "sub-categories" under the larger category "Practicing Paraphrasing" that, since they are often brought up as discrepancies or errors, also need some clarification: A) "Theological Clarification" and B) "Representational Change." So, I want to briefly examine and explain these two sub-categories before moving on to the next major category.

A) Theological Clarification.  A good example of the first sub-category is found in the contrast between Luke 14:26 and Matthew 10:37, warnings to the twelve disciples and then to a large crowd about the cost of discipleship and how it impacts their relationships with their families. Luke's version of this saying seems very harsh, since it talks about "hating" relatives, possessions, one's own life.  But Matthew talks about "loving (relatives, possessions, one's own life) more than me." Isn't this a discrepancy, a watering down of Jesus' teaching by Matthew? Not necessarily, as pointed out by Dr. Craig Blomberg: "Matthew's paraphrase is a fair interpretation of what Jesus' harsher sounding statement in Luke meant; in semitic language and thought 'hate' had a broader range of meanings than it does in English, including in the sense of 'leaving aside', 'renunciation' or 'abandonment.' Moreover, as G. B. Caid explains, 'the semitic way of saying "I prefer this to that" is "I like this and hate that" (cf. Gen. 29:30-31; Dt. 21:15-17). Thus, for the followers of Jesus to 'hate' their families meant giving the family second place in their affections" (cf. "Contradictions in the Synoptics?" The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 121) So while Luke made a literal translation of Jesus' saying and Matthew gave a paraphrase of it, the meaning and application of the saying is the same.

B) Representational Changes.  Probably the best example of this is the accounts given by Mark and Luke of the paralytic whose friends take him to the house where Jesus is teaching, but because of the large crowd surrounding the house, they climb up on the roof, make an opening the roof, and then lower the man down so Jesus can heal him (Mk. 2:4; Lk. 5:19). Mark describes them "digging through" a thatched roof and letting the man down, while Luke describes them "removing the tiles" and letting him down in front of Jesus. "Luke's account of lowering the paralytic through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching removes Mark's reference to 'digging' which would have been necessary with the typical thatched roofs of Palestine, and replaces it with a description of the removal of 'tiles,' more common atop buildings elsewhere in the Roman Empire...All these changes simply help a non-Jewish audience to picture the scenes more vividly and comprehensibly in their minds, even if the actual details of the imagery have changed. Modern Bible paraphrases do much the same thing; the Living Bible, for example changes David's lamp to a 'flashlight' and Paul's command to greet the brethren with a holy kiss to the injunction, 'shake hands warmly' (Ps. 119:105; Rom. 16:16). So it should not cause distress to discover that the original writers of Scripture did much the same. The meaning of the overall passage in each case remains unaltered; in fact it is precisely in order to preserve its intelligibility for a foreign audience that the details of the picture are changed." (Ibid., p. 122)

C) Synecdoche. This is a third sub-category, where a part is used to stand for the whole. The best-known example of this is where Jesus promises that God will give good gifts to those who ask him. Matthew records him saying, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?" while Luke who almost quotes the same saying exactly, changes "good gifts" in the final clause to "the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 7:11; Lk. 11:13). Luke makes the change to show that of all the gifts God is eager to give us, the Holy Spirit is the most important one. "Since the Holy Spirit is the preeminent example of the type of 'good thing' which is a heavenly gift (cf. Mk. 13:11 pars.; Jn. 14:16-17; Acts 1:8), and thus the most important part of the whole, the change is justifiable." (Ibid., p.124)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Sunday, January 30, 2022

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Four Gospels, Pt 6

Up to this point, we have been "clearing the ground" in order to deal with the issue of "alleged" contradictions or errors existing between the Synoptic Gospels, and how that impacts their historical reliability in telling the Story of Jesus. We've looked at such issues as the oral/written sources of the Gospels, the composition and nature of the Gospels, some of the general differences and similarities of the Gospels, and the authorship of the Gospels. Now we can properly with the so-called "contradictions" that liberals and atheistic skeptics bring up against these New Testament documents.

Due to certain differences of historical detail between parallel passages and between the overall outlines of the Synoptic Gospels many critics and skeptics, as we have already noted elsewhere, argue that on this basis, these documents cannot be viewed as fully reliable in the information they offer us about Jesus' life and ministry. However, as Craig Blomberg has pointed, these variations do not, in and of themselves negate the reliability of the Gospels. "If anything, the minor variations that do occur, when coupled with the much greater amount of close agreement in detail, actually strengthen confidence in the evangelists' trustworthiness. Verbatim parallelism, on the other hand, where it occurs, only approves that one writer has copied from another and offers no independent corroboration of his testimony" (cf.  'Contradictions Among the Synoptics?" The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 114).

Most of the "alleged" discrepancies or errors raised against the Synoptic Gospels by critics and skeptics comes under one of 7 categories:

1. Conflicting Theology: This supposedly occurs when certain Gospel sayings on a topic are viewed as in contradiction because they express variations in theology. For example, take a critic, who perhaps doesn't believe in prophecy, pitting Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God coming and being inaugurated after his baptism and his ministry in Galilee (Lk. 17:20-21), with his teaching that when he returns at the end of history, following certain "signs," he will deliver his people and rule over the nations (Lk. 21:25-32). This critic may argue that both can't be true in the same way and at the same time. Jesus must have taught the Kingdom was imminent, but when that didn't happen, the Church invented a saying of Jesus that made the Kingdon future. But several NT scholars have pointed out (e.g., George Eldon Ladd in The Gospel of the Kingdom), when all the texts in the Gospels pertaining to the coming of God's Kingdom are examined and weighed, it is clear that there is an "inaugural" phase that began with Christ and his ministry; was further manifested in his pouring out the Spirit on the Church and equipping it for its world mission; and then in a future glorious return of Christ, then God's Kingdom will be "manifested' in all its fullness.  Thus, they summarize Christ's teaching as, "God's Kingdom is now, and yet to come." So, the "alleged" discrepancies between Christ's various sayings about the coming Kingdom can be harmonized and integrated as a whole without doing violence to the meaning and significance of the individual texts. It is often the presuppositions of the critic, rather the Gospel text itself, that determines how they analyze and categorize it.

2. The Practice of Paraphrasing:  Sometimes the words of Christ, instead being "literal" utterances are "paraphrases" that bring out certain nuances of the original utterance that help the Gospel writers make certain points in their version of what Christ (or some other person) said. For example, at Jesus' baptism, Luke and Mark record the Father saying to Jesus, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." But Matthew records the Father's words as, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." As recorded by Luke and Mark, this address appears to be directed primarily to Jesus as an assurance as he begins his Messianic mission, but Matthew paraphrases it so as to show that this is both an assurance to Jesus and a declaration to the listening crowd as to who Jesus was. "Matthew has probably just reworded Mark to highlight the fact that the heavenly voice spoke not only for Jesus' benefit but also for the benefit of the crowd (and so as well as for those who hear this story later)." And again, Matthew is not doing anything in violation of ancient historiography in doing this. "[An ancient] historian or biographer referring to what a person said did not necessarily try to cite his exact wording. So long as what he wrote was faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, the author was free to phrase his report however he liked, and no one would accuse him of misquoting his source or producing an unreliable narrative." (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.118)

We have now covered two of the seven categories under which "alleged" contradictions fall. In the next article, we will briefly look at the remaining five categories, and then look at two or three problem passages which many critics believe prove the Synoptic Gospels are historically unreliable.   


Sunday, January 23, 2022

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Pt 5

Now we are at a point where we can examine some key "contradictions or errors" that critics and skeptics say exist between the Synoptic Gospels, which they love to bring up because they believe these alleged errors 1) invalidate the Gospels as trustworthy historical records and interpretations of Jesus' life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection, and 2) which they believe disprove the historical Christian teaching on the divine inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the original New Testament documents. Though we are primarily concerned with issue #1 in this series of articles, this author is a firm believer in the divine inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the original New Testament documents. But this belief, with all the pros and cons connected with it, calls for a separate article for its defense and exposition. And we may provide such a defense and exposition at a later time. But here we will focus on the Gospels as reliable historical records and interpretations of the Story of Jesus the Messiah, and then address, as we have said, the key alleged "contradictions and errors" existing between them. But first, let me say something about the authorship of the Gospels.

In the first century, Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, the Pauline epistles, the General Epistles (i.e., James, 1&2 Peter, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John), Hebrews, and the Apocalypse were circulated and exchanged among the churches as individual books and kept in their church archives as such. Then fairly early in the second century, perhaps through the influence of the Antiochian and Roman churches, the Gospels were put together in one book, entitled "The Gospel" and with the Four Gospels being given the subtitle, "According to Matthew, According to Mark, According to Luke, and According to John." Then Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and Hebrews were combined into one book, with Acts serving as the "historical introduction" to these letters, while the General Epistles and the Apocalypse remained as separate books. Nevertheless, from the time they were first published and circulated, the Gospels were recognized either as the work of the Apostles Matthew and John, or as the work of apostolic associates, Mark and Luke, which were approved by the Apostles Peter and Paul, despite the fact that unlike the NT letters, the Gospels do not clearly name their authors. How is this to be explained?

Primarily, it is on the basis of the internal literary evidence of the Gospels themselves, as well as the historical evidence provided by the testimony of early Christian teachers, apologists, and historians who regarded themselves as both the recipients and guardians of those books embodying Apostolic traditions. For example, comparing the stories and teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark with the sermons of Peter recorded by Luke in Acts, and then with the statements Peter makes about Christ and his life in the two letters attributed to him (i.e., 1 and 2 Peter), the Petrine connection is clear. And then Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, confirms this by stating that having been impacted by Peter's preaching and teaching, the Roman Christians urgently requested that "Mark, as the companion of Peter, leave them a monument of the doctrine orally communicated in writing. Nor did they cease their solicitations until they prevailed with the man, and thus became the means of that history which is called the Gospel according to Mark...The Apostle Peter, having ascertained what was done by the revelation of the Spirit, was delighted with the zealous ardor expressed by these men, and that the history obtained his authority for the purpose of being read in the churches. This account is given by Clement, in the sixth book of his Institutions, whose testimony is corroborated by that of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis." (Eccles. History, Ch XV, pp. 64-65)

Luke/Acts, which forms a two-volume history of Jesus the Messiah and the earliest Christians, was written by the same author, who evidently was a close companion of the Apostle Paul, as is clear from the "we" passages of Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16. Certain stylistic and structural characteristics, such as the use of chiasm and the device of focusing on particular individuals, are common to both books, demonstrating they were written by the same author. And not only was this author a capable of high-quality Greek but was also apparently well versed in historical and scientific methods of investigation and description. Then there is the fact that during his final imprisonment in Rome, Luke alone was Paul's constant companion, during the same time when the so-called Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) were written (c. 64 A.D.). A comparison of the Greek style and vocabulary of Luke/Acts with that of the Pastoral Epistles gives strong evidence that author of the Third Gospel also acted as Paul's stenographer and composed these letters under Paul's direction. Moreover, in 1 Tim. 5:17-18, where Paul gives instruction on supporting elders who govern well and faithfully preach and teach the message of Christ, he appeals to Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:4 as the Scripture that supports his teaching   So in addition to its own high merits as a historical account of Jesus' life and career, Luke/Act's Pauline connection secured its esteemed place in the NT canon. 

Now we come to the Gospel of Matthew, which from the first was highly esteemed, widely used, and quoted frequently because it contained stories, parables and full discourses of Jesus not found in Mark, which was considered by many early Christians as an abridgement of Matthew.  Not only did the Gospel of Matthew provide a fuller authoritative record of Christ's teaching necessary for the instruction and training of new converts, but it also provided material that was well suited for doing evangelism and apologetic ministry among Jews prior to the Jewish/Roman War (c. 66-73 A.D.). Levi-Matthew, the tax collector, who would have had training and skill in shorthand stenography and writing detailed reports for his Roman employers, was long considered the author of this Gospel. However liberal scholars deny this. At most, they argue that Matthew may have written Q, perhaps in Aramaic, which was later incorporated and expanded by a Jewish Christian writer, fluent in Greek, resulting in the Gospel of Matthew as we now have it in the Greek New Testament. 

However, there is more than one way to interpret the external and internal evidence. For example, even if Matthew did write Q, as tax collector and reporter, he would have to be trilingual (i.e., would have had to have a working knowledge of Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) to do his work effectively. So, there is no reason why he could not have written a second edition of his Gospel in Greek, that incorporated Q, Mark's Gospel, plus things he recalled from his own memories of being with Jesus.  As George Eldon Ladd states, "If Matthew wrote a first edition of his Gospel in Aramaic for the Jewish-Christian community of Antioch and Mark wrote a Gospel in Rome embodying the Petrine tradition, it is entirely credible that when Matthew later produced a second edition in Greek, he made free use of the Petrine Gospel, thereby adding his own testimony to its authority and proving that the apostolic witness to Christ was not divided" (cf. More Light on the Synoptics, Church Times, March 2, 1959, p.16) 

Several NT scholars have pointed out that in the time period in which this Gospel was written, the book would have had its authorship credited to the person who published and distributed it in Greek, not to the authority of the sources behind it. That is why, for example, the Gospel of Mark is not called the Gospel of Peter.  And then other NT scholars, such as C. D. Moule and Carsten Peter Thiede have argued from Matt. 13:51-52 that, in a self-deprecating way, that Matthew identifies himself as the one Jesus specifically called to write a historical record of his life words and deeds. "Is it not conceivable that the Lord really did say to that tax-collector Matthew: You have been a 'writer' (as the Navy would put it); you have had plenty to do with the commercial side of just the topics alluded to in the parables--farmer's stock, fields, treasure-trove, fishing revenues, [but] now that you have become a disciple, you can bring all this out again--but with a difference" (cf. "Dates and Debates," Eyewitness to Jesus, Carsten P. Theide and Matthew d'Ancona, pp. 17-18).  Therefore, liberals and skeptics do not have the last word on the origins of the Gospels nor their historical reliability. And now that we have cleared the ground, we will move on in the next article to deal with some key "apparent contradictions."  

Friday, January 14, 2022

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Pt 4

Now when you compare Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the so-called "Synoptic Gospels," the unity and diversity between them is clearly seen in how they describe certain common events and the similarity in form which they give to common discourses. This is because Mark, apparently the earliest and shortest of the Gospels, was used by both Matthew and Luke in writing their accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And they, in the main, follow Mark's geographical/chronological order. Yet it is not a slavish use of Markan material, and in a number of places, Matthew and Luke add stories and sayings of Jesus that fill out their respective versions of the Story of Jesus.  

Regarding this, F.F. Bruce, a NT scholar and textual critic, has written, "There is no short cut to a satisfactory account of this distribution of common and special material in the Synoptic Gospels. There is no a priori reason for holding one gospel to be earlier and another later, for holding one to be a source of another and the latter dependent on the former...If unanimity has not been reached after a century and a half intensive synoptic study..., certain findings command a much greater area of agreement than others. One of these is the priority of Mk, and its use as a principal source by the other two Synoptic evangelists. This finding depends not merely on the formal evidence that Mt. and Mk. sometimes agree in order against Lk., Mk. and Lk. more frequently against Mt., but Mt. and Lk. never against Mk... In the overwhelming majority of sections, the situation can be best understood if Mk's account was used as a source by one or both of the others" (cf. F.F. Bruce, "The Fourfold Gospel," The International Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 1984, p. 1076).   

Again, in addition to their use of Mark, Matthew and Luke have records of events and discourses that are abbreviated in comparison with what you find in Mark, or in some cases, they add some stories and sayings of Jesus not found in Mark. And in some other cases, Matthew and Luke have either recast or paraphrased certain statements of Jesus that, due to the rougher and colorful phrasing of Mark, might lead to serious confusion or misunderstanding by Greek and Roman readers not familiar with Jewish literary idioms or cultural references cf. Craig Blomberg, "Contradictions Among the Synoptics?" The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, pp. 113-152). And in some cases, where we find similar sayings and parables in different locations in the Gospels, this is to be explained in the fact that Jesus was an itinerant preacher. As D. A. Carson states, "[T]hat Jesus was an itinerant preacher (cf. comments at Mt. 4:23-25; 9:35-38; 11:21) is passed over too lightly. To attempt a tradition history of somewhat similar sayings, which the evangelists place in quite different contexts, overlooks the repetitive nature of itinerant ministry. Of course, each case must be examined on its own merits and depends in some instances on source-critical considerations; but we shall observe how frequently this basic observation is ignored. See especially the introductory discussion on parables at 13:3a." (D. A. Carson, "Matthew," Introduction, EBC Vol. 8, p.9)  

We need to say a word or two about the sources used by the Gospel writers; when the Gospels were most likely written; and how the early Christian communities viewed and used these Gospels. Using various investigative tools of historical, literary, and textual criticism, NT scholars have detected that in addition to Mark, the authors of Luke and Matthew used at least three other major sources of oral/written tradition, designated L (the stories, sayings, and discourses peculiar to Luke), M (the stories, sayings, and discourses peculiar to Matthew) and Q (a sort of proto-gospel, containing Jesus' discourses and sayings within a narrative outline, possibly originating in Palestine or Syria). Yet certain questions about the contents and historicity of these sources are somewhat mute. Not only were these early sources thoroughly absorbed and integrated into the Gospels, but none of them appear to have been preserved separately after 70 A.D. (Note: As for the so-called Gospel of Judas and Gospel of Thomas, there is no evidence these books were written before 140 A.D., or ever recognized and used by any Christian community that claimed to have been founded by Christ's apostles.)

NT papyrologists, who use scientific methods of investigation and analysis in examining the development of written Greek scripts in the century before and after the NT era; the types of material on which they were written; and the various sites where and when papyrus NT manuscripts appear to have originated, as well as to where they were sent and preserved, have narrowed the gap between the time of the Jesus traditions were circulated and the Gospels began to be written. Indeed, they have determined very narrow limits for when the Gospels could have been written; for Mark, 40 to 50 A.D; Matthew, 50 to 66 A.D.; and Luke, 60 to 65 A.D.  And so, as D. A. Carson says, "On any dating of the Gospels some eyewitnesses were still alive when the evangelists published their books" (Cf.  Introduction, "Matthew," EBC Volume 8, p. 9). So fabricating Jesus stories and sayings may have not been so easy in the light of challenges that could be made by these eyewitnesses.

Moreover, even though some critics and skeptics attempt to "deconstruct" the Gospels into their so-called "source" materials, they fail to see that, in and of itself, this deconstruction does not prove that the Gospels were historically unreliable.  For one thing, they would have to prove that the sources (L, M, and Q, however you define them) were themselves historically unreliable, not containing authentic stories about what Jesus actually said and did but were deceitful and clever legends and fables made up by the early church.  Another thing they would have to prove is that the Gospel writers, in utilizing and editing their sources to present their various portrayals of Jesus' life, words, and deeds, somehow deliberately misappropriated and distorted their sources. But would this be something the critics and skeptics could easily do? I doubt it.

Consider the challenge the skeptics face in the pursuit of the project of examining and evaluating these sources of the Gospels: First, since these sources ceased to exist independently of the Gospels after 66 A.D., how then could one examine them and determine their authenticity and historicity? Second, what kind of literature are the Gospels, and in following certain literary conventions of their time, did they really misappropriate and distort their sources? Thirdly, recall what Luke said about his predecessors and their accounts of Jesus: "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 beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." (Lk. 1:1-2, NIV). Like himself, Luke's predecessors had sought to compile narrative accounts of what the apostles testified they had actually seen and heard in Jesus' presence, and then to pass on these accounts in a form accessible to all. Now some of these predecessors may have written accounts that were less full and adequate for teaching and defending the faith than what Luke was writing. But none of them deliberately or knowingly had set out to spread lies and falsehoods about who Jesus was, had said, or had done.

Now, the reason the Gospels are so complex is that they are a unique kind of Greco-Roman period literature that recombines earlier forms and genres into novel configurations that best recount and explain who Jesus was, what he said and did, and the significance of it all. "Thus, our Gospels are made up of many pericopes (i.e., literary sections), some belonging to recognized genres, others with affinities to recognized genres. Each must be weighed, but the result is a flexible form that aims to give a selective account of Jesus, including his teaching and miracles and culminating in his death by crucifixion and his burial and his resurrection. The selection includes certain key points in his career (his baptism, ministry, passion, and resurrection) and aims at a credible account of these historical events. At the same time the material is organized so as to stress certain subjects and motifs. The writing is not dispassionate but confessional--something the evangelists considered an advantage. Some of the material is organized along thematic lines, some according to a loose chronology; still other pericopes are linked by some combination of catch words, themes, OT attestation, genre, and logical coherence. The result is not exactly a history, biography, theology, confession, catechism, tract, homage, or letter--though it is in some respects all these. It is a 'Gospel' a presentation of the 'good news' of Jesus the Messiah." (D. A. Carson, Introduction, "Matthew," EBC, Vol. 8, pp. 38-39) And that is how we must understand them and received them if we are to profit from reading and expounding them.



Tuesday, December 21, 2021

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Pt 3

There are some NT critics who, apparently assuming that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are "irreconcilably at odds with each other," make their case that at least one of these books cannot be considered an accurate account of Jesus' life, words, and deeds. They point out "variations" in the wording and location of various discourses and stories as "evidence" that supports the case they're making against the trustworthiness of the Gospels. However, as we mentioned in a previous article, these apparent discrepancies and contradictions have been known and explained in various ways since at least the third century A.D.  And in our own day, such answers have been provided as well, e.g., Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties (Zondervan, 1984). 

It amuses me sometimes that these critics think serious Christians are unaware of these problems. The New Testament, since its production and distribution, has been the most scrutinized book of religious literature. So, it comes as no surprise that nearly every passage in the one of the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke which can be compared side by side) has been seen as contradicting a similar passage in another by someone for some reason. Yet most of the charges raised against "evident" errors and contradictions in the gospels have been adequately answered by many who have defended trustworthiness of the gospels. Let us not forget that from the beginning, all Christian communities were committed to Jesus the Messiah and to living the Kingdom lifestyle that he had taught and had lived himself. 

Consequently, there would have been, from the start, a strong need for oral and written traditions that faithfully preserved what Jesus had said and done that would enable Christians to know who Jesus was, what he had taught, and what he expected of them as his followers. As NT scholar J. G. Dunn says, "In terms of human nature as we know it today, it would have been very unusual if the followers of such a leader had not been concerned to preserve memories of the exploits and utterances that drew them to him and sustained their loyalty to him...Jesus was not remembered merely as one who had provided a system of teaching or a philosophy or a spirituality, which could be preserved and practiced without the original teacher...It would be odd indeed to imagine Christian congregations who in their regular gatherings were concerned only with the study of the Jewish Scriptures, the message of Jesus' death and resurrection, and with waiting for the return of their risen Lord--and who were quite unconcerned to recall and reflect on the ministry and teaching of Jesus--the founding traditions which gave them their distinctive identity."(J.G. Dunn, "The Historicity of the Synoptic Gospels," Crisis in Christology, pp. 201-202)

Moreover, these oral and written traditions that were absorbed into the creation of the Synoptic Gospels were themselves reliable. Craig Blomberg, in his book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 1987), surveys various studies of the practices of 1st century Jewish rabbis and Greco-Roman philosophers in teaching their pupils to vividly remember and pass on their teaching to others.  These studies found that in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman culture of that day, pupils both took shorthand notes and also learned rigorous rules of memorization in order to accurately recall the key acts and teachings of their rabbi or philosopher.  While they could paraphrase the teaching to some degree, or topically arrange the events of the rabbi’s life or portions of his teaching, the religious-social conventions of the day frowned upon pupils fabricating any stories or teachings not original to their rabbi or philosophic teacher.  Such fabrications were quickly exposed and refuted by those who knew and had heard the rabbi or philosopher themselves.  They insisted adherence to the oral tradition, that body of memorized stories and teaching everyone had originally heard and received from the rabbi or philosopher themselves.  And in many cases, whatever the differences between oral tradition and written tradition (i.e., shorthand notes) were mainly that of emphasis, not of substance, in the teaching.

In addition, as regards the writing of Greco-Roman history and historical biography, there were long-standing rules that were known and followed by those who wished to be recognized as trustworthy historians, and not dismissed as mere tellers of fanciful yarns. Lucian of Samosata (120-180 A.D.) reviewed these rules in a letter with his friend Philo, wherein he states regarding the historian's task: "The historian’s one task is to tell the thing as it happened. This he cannot do, if he is Artaxerxes’s physician trembling before him, or hoping to get a purple cloak, a golden chain, a horse of the Nisaean breed, in payment for his laudations. A fair historian, a Xenophon, a Thucydides, will not accept that position. He may nurse some private dislikes, but he will attach far more importance to the public good and set the truth high above his hate; he may have his favorites, but he will not spare their errors. For history, I say again, has this and this only for its own; if a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this — to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse." And as for the historian's gathering his facts and then writing his account, Lucian adds: "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 judgement in weighing probabilities." (The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905)

Of course, the reason I'm reviewing the nature and practice of passing on oral/written traditions and the writing of historical biographies in the time of Jesus and the Early Church is to close the door on the widespread (and often repeated) idea that fabricated stories and unfounded legends were freely mingled with a few facts in the proclamation of Jesus and his Messianic mission. Peter, in what is considered by many as his last will and testament, clearly states: "For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, 'This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.' We ourselves heard this when we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Pet. 1:16-18, NLT). And the Apostle John, also known by the Ephesian church as "John the Elder," near the end of his own life and ministry wrote concerning this Apostolic preaching and teaching: "We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life...And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 Jn. 1:1-3, NLT).

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul himself utilizes elements of these same oral/written traditions in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which was a rather unruly Christian congregation that had all kinds of problems. When he gives them counsel on marriage and divorce, he lays before them Jesus' own command on this subject (1 Cor. 7:10-11). When speaking on the maintenance of gospel preachers, Paul again refers to the Lord's own command (1 Cor. 9:13-14). When he rebukes their abuse of the Lord's Supper and instructs them on its proper observance, Paul actually quotes Jesus's own words: "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:23-26, NIV). Lastly, when reminding them about the nature and scope of the Gospel preached by himself and the other Apostles, Paul states, "Now brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand...For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James...and last of all he appeared to me...Whether then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this what you believed." (1 Cor. 15:1-11, NIV)  

So, there is really no good reason to deny that it is this body of Apostolic preaching and teaching that formed the oral/written tradition the Gospel writers later utilized in writing their different accounts of Jesus' life and Messianic mission. This is pretty much what Luke himself states was the case when, in writing the preface to the Third Gospel, he writes: "Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received" (Luke 1:1-4, NAB). From what Luke says, there were several accounts that preceded his own, based on the same oral/written traditions. Yet he seems to have felt the need to provide a newer and perhaps fuller account that would meet the need that Theophilus had for knowing the certainty of what he had been taught about Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and how what began as a small Jewish sect became an Empire wide religious movement.  

Now when you compare Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the unity and diversity between them is clearly seen in how they describe certain common events and the form which they give to common discourses. This is because Mark, the earliest and shortest of the Gospels, was used by both Matthew and Luke in writing their accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Plus, Matthew and Luke have records of events and discourses that are abbreviated in comparison with what you find in Mark, or in some cases, they add some stories and sayings of Jesus not found in Mark. It is both in comparing these similarities and differences that exist between these three works that critics, for various "reasons," often point out alleged contradictions or errors. But before I deal with some of these alleged contradictions and how they can be satisfactorily answered, I want to say a little more about the sources used by the Gospel writers.  And we will do so in Part 4 of this series of articles.  


Friday, December 10, 2021

 "Apparent Contradictions" and the Historical Reliability of the Four Gospels, Pt 2

Previously, we dealt with the background behind the question, "Do apparent contradictions negate the historical reliability of the Four Gospels?" And near the end of the article, we indicated that the nature and purpose of the Four Gospels, along with their apparent use of the oral and written sources available to write the Story of Jesus as the Messiah, must be considered first before we could answer any questions about apparent or real contradictions existing between the Gospels a record and interpretation of Jesus' life, words, deeds, and death.

Now, when we look at the Four Gospels and start reading them, what kind of books are we reading?  Are they a mere compilation of myths and legends about an obscure Jewish rabbi and sage revered by members of an outlandish Jewish sect of the first century?  If that is all they were, then how in the world did the Christian revolution, as Tom Holland describes the Jesus movement in his book, Dominion, ever transform the Roman Empire the way it did? And how would scholars, historians, and writers in the centers of ancient Greco-Roman learning have understood these books? Would they have viewed them as compilations of myths and legends, with which they were familiar, or would they have recognized them as something on a different scale altogether?

N. T. Wright and Michael Bird, in The New Testament in Its World, point out that if these books had been given to the scholars and librarians resident at the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, they would have recognized them as historical biographies, similar to Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates, since they follow the literary conventions of historical biography that existed at the time. Such historical biographies were written in continuous prose; they present the stylized career of a public leader; they provide a chronological framework of the person's birth, deeds, death, and legacy; they contain vignettes highlighting their character and achievements; they say quite a bit about the person's manner of death; and as a whole, such works extol their central figure for his virtues while defending them from accusations from various detractors.

But then in addition to this, and perhaps quite strange to them, the Gospels clearly seek to connect and integrate the Story of Jesus with the Story of Israel as God's Chosen People, revealing him as the fulfilment to the Abrahamic promise that "all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you and your seed" (Cf. Gen. 12:1-3 with Gal. 3:15-29).  They would see that the writers of these books, in their respective ways, sought to demonstrate that Jesus, as the culmination of all Israel's Messianic hopes and expectations, is God's Chosen One through whom his plan to bring about the redemption and reconciliation of humanity and the whole creation with himself has been and, yes, will be accomplished. They would see that the Gospels rehearse OT themes and literary patterns; they would see clear echoes of OT Messianic prophecies and promises; but above they would see that the Gospels insist that if the Jewish OT was telling a Great Story looking for a perfect ending, then Jesus the Messiah and the New Era he had inaugurated on the basis of his death and resurrection was that ending.

Perhaps a different picture of the Gospels may be considered to help us better understand what the Gospels truly are and what their main purpose is.  Again, we turn to N.T. Wright and Michael Bird who paint this enlightening and helpful portrayal of the Four Gospels: "The gospels, then, are not like what we might now have if someone had been able to follow Jesus around Judea and Galilee, filming him with a smartphone. Rather, the gospels are more like a documentary-drama, the recollection and refraction of a significant past, a past available through the corporate memory of Jesus as it was transmitted in the early church. There was undoubtedly some memorization of the Jesus tradition. Jesus' words, and many stories from his public career, were told and retold to undergird and direct the life of the church and guide it in its ongoing struggles."  

And what was the main point of the Gospels? "The point was that [God's] kingdom had arrived on earth as in heaven, that this was how it had happened, and in particularly that this was the reality in which Jesus's followers were now living. The challenge of living out that new reality was to be met, not simply by the memory of a few helpful stories or examples, but by living within that repeatedly told story and finding it both as historical foundation and present scene setting. In that ongoing work, eyewitnesses and teachers, as Luke indicates, were available to correct erroneous accounts of the [Jesus] tradition." (Wright and Bird, The New Testament in Its World, p. 699) 

Moreover, if anyone was going to join a Christian community, and commit themselves to be a follower of Jesus the Messiah, wouldn't they want some trustworthy, reliable source that clearly set forth his teaching and lifestyle that they could both trust and follow as a guide?  That is primarily what the Gospels are, yet they obviously are not carbon copies of each other, even though they have a common chronological structure and share some common stories and sayings of Jesus.  Now we can move on, in the next part of this series, to discuss the differences of the Gospels, their use of oral and written "Jesus traditions," and the question of "apparent contradictions."