Tuesday, July 17, 2012
The NT Writers and Jesus of Nazareth: Did They Get His Story Right?
In our previous article, we examined the contemporary, non-Christian evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and the religious community which he founded. Noting in our conclusion that this evidence confirmed the overall NT portrayal of Jesus and the earliest Christians as historical and reliable, we quoted one of the NT writers who stated that though Jesus said and did much more than he had recorded, he had recorded what was necessary for them to know that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, sent to redeem and reconcile lost humanity with God. And we had also concluded with the statement that only through the NT writings would we get the full story as to who Jesus was and what he had come to do, from the perspective of those who truly knew him and followed him. Of course, this raises the following question: Did the NT writers get the story of Jesus and the earliest Christians right? Is the NT historically reliable, or is it pure religious propaganda that distorts facts to achieve some predetermined agenda?
The Alleged "Bias" of the NT Writers
There are a number of liberal and post-liberal scholars who would say that the New Testament cannot be trusted to give us a historically reliable witness to Jesus' life and ministry, nor to that of his earliest disciples. The reason for this negative assessment, most of them would argue, is that these writers were "biased" towards the tenets of orthodox Christianity, and being committed to spreading a "message of salvation" would not hesitate to fabricate stories and sayings of Jesus that would promote their religious agenda. Now, while this argument seems plausible enough, it rests on two unproven and contradictory assumptions:
1. Any scholar or writer, whether ancient or modern, if committed to a particular religious or philosophical viewpoint, cannot engage in any honest, self-critical, and fruitful investigation and interpretation of historical or scientific data.
2. Only the modern scientific investigator, rigorously following the scientific method is "totally objective and value free," and so is best suited to carry on honest, self-critical, and fruitful analysis of data.
However, the problem with this argument and its premises is, as Thomas Kuhn, A.F. Scott, and Cornelius Van Til have demonstrated, that it does not give a true account of how human reason and scientific investigation actually work. For in their respective fields of science, history, and theology these writers have demonstrated that all investigators, regardless of time and culture, have a dominant viewpoint of reality that shapes their perception and interpretation of the data they examine.
Everyone, consciously or unconsciously, possesses some basic worldview, philosophy of life, or interpretative paradigm through which they analyze and evaluate the data of daily existence. And whether they recognize it or not, this viewpoint has been derived from the tradition of a community from which they came; from some religious authority, such as the Bible or Koran, which they perceive and accept as divine revelation; or from some common naturalistic philosophy which they believe adequately explains daily reality as they encounter it. And it is the central axioms of these various worldviews that act as the control beliefs that regulate how an investigator will process, weigh, and evaluate the data presented to them. Normally, unless these viewpoints fail to pass the tests of rational consistency, rational coherency, existential and psychological resonance, moral stability, and aesthetic symmetry--an investigator will not be moved either to modify his investigative methodology, nor consider acquiring a better "alternative" viewpoint. Thus no investigator, ancient or modern, at whatever stage of analyzing and synthesizing data, is ever "totally objective and value free" in their judgments. However, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot engage in honest, self-critical investigation and interpretation of historical data. Let us consider a modern example of a "committed" historian.
Sir Winston Churchill: Example of A "Committed" Historian
It might be argued, for example, that Sir Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples cannot be regarded as a generally reliable and useful history. Why? "Because." as some critic might well say, "Churchill, as an upper-class, well-educated British soldier and politician had a 'bias' toward Great Britain and all its achievements in politics, literature, and science. He could never have written a history that was truly self-critical of the British people and culture, nor that justly and fairly treated the German people and their culture, especially in light of the deadly conflict in which both peoples were engaged during World War II."
Now, as plausible as this argument may seem, it proves absolutely nothing regarding Churchill or his historical writing. Nor does it automatically render his writings as historically invalid or worthless. The question that his critics have to answer, in order to make their charges stick, is this: Did Churchill present and interpret the facts regarding WW II, of equal concern to all the parties involved, without distorting or suppressing data that was not congenial to his own viewpoint? Then their task would be to compare his writings with those of contemporary French and German historians who also recorded and interpreted these same historical figures and events, and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Churchill had deliberately ignored or misrepresented the facts standing against his own position. If, after careful investigation and research, it was found that Churchill and these other historians were found to agree on many key points--then on these key points Churchill would most certainly be regarded as a reliable recorder and interpreter of Anglo-American history. And where they were shown to differ, on the basis of all the historical evidence, it would then have to be demonstrated in these particular cases whether it was Churchill or the other historians who gave the most faithful record and interpretation as to what actually was said and done during WW II.
The NT Writers As "Committed" Historians
This rule of historical investigation and verification that we applied to Churchill and his writings holds true as well for the NT writers' record and interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. No one doubts that being "committed" Christians gave a certain "slant" to their interpretation of the historical traditions about Jesus they had inherited. Both Luke and John plainly tell us, in their respective works (cf. Lk. 1:1-4; John 20:30-31; and 1 John 1:1-4), that what they offer us is a carefully investigated and historically reliable record and interpretation of Jesus' life and ministry, based on trustworthy testimony of eyewitnesses. But they also tell us that their record is not exhaustive, but selective and geared to meet certain apologetical and pedagogical needs in the Early Church. So while, as historians, they sought to accurately and faithfully pass on the true story of Jesus' life and ministry, the NT writers never pretended to be "totally objective and value free" in their historical analyses and judgments.
Nevertheless, it is a well-known and demonstrated fact that the NT writers retain a number of stories and sayings of both Jesus and the Apostles that would be quite embarrassing and shocking for anyone seriously attempting to give a "biased, uncritical" account of either Jesus or the Apostles. For example, the Gospels record that at first John the Baptist and his followers gladly acknowledged Jesus as the promised Messiah; then, not too long after, they started having second thoughts about giving him their support and asked for confirmation that he was indeed the Messiah (cf. Matt. 3:1-16; Jn. 1:15, 19-42; Matt. 11:2-15). They also record that Jesus, while going up to Jerusalem for the last time, openly predicted his coming death as a ransom for humanity's sin, and was also clearly determined to fulfill his Father's will in this matter. Yet on the night before he was arrested and then condemned to death, Jesus is also shown as agonizing with God in prayer, pleading that if possible, an alternative to his horrible crucifixion might be provided (cf. Lk. 9:51-56; Mk. 10:32-34; Lk. 22:39-44). And the Gospels also record that Jesus' twelve Apostles, who had loved him and pledged their loyalty even to death (Matt. 26:31-35; Mk. 14:26-31), when push came to shove, abandoned him and left him alone to face the mercy of his enemies (cf. Matt. 26:47-56; Mk. 14:41-52; Lk. 22:39-62).
Now if, as it is often charged, these NT writers intended to give a "biased, uncritical" account of Jesus' life and ministry, or even one of his Apostles, then how is that they preserved and recorded these "awkward" incidents in their books? Poor propagandists indeed! The very fact that they did record them proves that while they were orthodox Christians, the NT writers were also careful to demonstrate the historicity of the Christian faith. For if their presentation and interpretation of Jesus' life and ministry, however selective it might have been, were not historically reliable and verifiable, then Christianity was patently false. Indeed, this was the very point Paul made in his defense before Governor Festus and King Agrippa when he said, "I am not insane, most excellant Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:25-26, NIV). And later, regarding the story of Jesus proclaimed by himself and the other Apostles, Paul commanded Timothy, "You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others" (2 Tim. 2:2, NLT).
Lastly, when we compare compare the key elements of the NT writers' record with that of contemporary Jewish and Roman writers, such as Josephus and Tacitus, we know that they got the Jesus story right and kept the essential facts as the core of their presentation. Their commitment to Christ did not prevent these writers from engaging in careful research and critical thinking as they sought to explain the true meaning and significance of who Jesus was and what God had sent hin to do in this world. That is why Luke could write to Theophilus, "Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you. most honorable Theophilus, so that you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught" (Lk. 1:3-4, NLT). So if you want to know the truth about Jesus, then take up and read the New Testament. You will not find a truer and more reliable account anywhere else.