Doug Groothuis "Rocky Mountain News" Editorial on "Da Vinci" and other Errors
By Douglas Groothuis
May 20, 2006
Jesus is back in the headlines. The fantastically popular novel and movie, "The Da Vinci Code," asserts that the Gospel accounts of his life are untrustworthy, that Jesus was not divine, and so on.
A spate of other books claim that Jesus' disciple Judas was not really a traitor, but the most illuminated disciple ("The Gospel of Judas"), or that Jesus did not die on the cross, but survived ("The Jesus Papers"). One movie sensationally claims that Jesus never existed (“The God Who Wasn't There”). No end to the revisionism is in sight.
Jesus has been controversial ever since he uttered a word in public. As the late Yale scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in "Jesus Through the Centuries," "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?"
Nevertheless, many strive to pull Jesus out of history and into fantasy. Despite their popular appeal, these strange new tales about Jesus ring historically hollow.
Rather than taking blind leaps of faith or making audacious contrarian assertions concerning Jesus, it is wiser to consider which theory about Jesus makes the most sense, all things considered.
The primary documents about Jesus of Nazareth are the four Gospels. Some claim that these documents have been translated from one language to another until we have no idea what the originals said. This is false. The Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are better attested to by manuscripts than any other piece of classical literature.
There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of these books in existence. Scholars draw their translations from these sources. A fragment of the Gospel of John dates to the early second century, probably only a few decades after it was originally written. By comparison, the recently published Gospel of Judas (like all Gnostic documents) has no such manuscript pedigree; it dates from the third century, has no history of manuscript transmission after that, and is difficult to reconstruct given its spotty quality.
But who wrote the Gospel accounts and when did they write them?
The Gospels are quoted so extensively by second century Christians it is clear that the Gospels and 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 100. There is good evidence that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (and the book of Acts) date before A.D. 70. The Gospel of John was written perhaps 20 years after that.
Given the importance of memorizing the teachings of religious authorities in that ancient oral culture, we have reason to trust that Jesus' words and actions were accurately preserved.
The most ancient traditions claim that Matthew and John were written by Jesus' disciples, that Mark was a colleague of the apostle Peter, and that Luke was the companion of the apostle Paul (many of whose New Testament letters probably predate the Gospels). In the New Testament we have the testimony of eyewitnesses or those who carefully consulted eyewitnesses. Besides this, numerous facts from extra-biblical writers (Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger) and from archaeology confirm many aspects of the Gospel record.
These are some of the historical credentials of the Gospels.
The Da Vinci Code to the contrary, the Council of Nicea did not rig the selection of New Testament books. Rather, they were selected on the basis of their perceived historical veracity.
Strange tales about Jesus notwithstanding, this Gospel story hangs together; and for Christians it continues to ring true.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "Jesus in an Age of Controversy" and "On Jesus."