Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jesus in History

Mr. Ben Goren gave a link in a previous post to an essay assailing the historicity of Jesus and the Gospels. Thus, I will post below chapter two from my 2003 book, On Jesus (Wadsworth):

2

Jesus in History

Even more so than with other philosophers, the historical details of Jesus’ life are of paramount importance for accurately assessing his message and his identity. We know of nothing written by Jesus. The primary historical documents relating his life—the four Gospels of the New Testament—portray him through narratives that often involve discourses. Jesus’ philosophy must be understood within the encounters and events narrated in the primary sources. His life setting and career cannot be separated from his argumentation and worldview. By contrast, the ideas of Aristotle, Descartes, Wittgenstein, or Weil may be discerned with minimal references to their biographies because they produced works meant to stand alone (although a knowledge of their historical background is very helpful for interpreting their works). Jesus’ work was his life. His thought emerges from his encounters, sermons, debates, prayers, and actions.

Historicity and Philosophers

The historical details of Socrates’ life are a bit murky, since he wrote nothing and our knowledge of him is dependent on Plato and a few other sources. This does not stop philosophers and students from assessing Socrates’ contributions. Most people usually assume that Plato basically got it right. But if not, the character and philosophizing of Plato’s Socrates are still compelling. Historians and philosophers have puzzled over Socrates, but there has never been “a quest for the historical Socrates” that matches the magnitude, duration, and intensity of “the quest for the historical Jesus.”[1] And for good reason. Socrates founded no religion and no one worships him. But for over a span of nearly two thousand years, millions have taken the New Testament Gospels as trustworthy accounts of the founder of their religion. Critics have questioned these convictions throughout history as well. One cannot settle this controversy in a chapter. However, in this chapter I will offer some background as to the historicity of these documents.

While many Christians regard the Gospels as divinely inspired and thus unerring documents, this perspective does not rule out a careful investigation of their nature and credentials. Divine inspiration need not mean anything like dictation from God to the writers. For example, the prologue to Luke’s Gospel openly acknowledges that the author consulted various sources to present the history 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 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 for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

An interested person should admit that one’s worldview will affect how one looks at the question of Jesus in history. Some have tried to eschew questions of historical scholarship entirely in favor of faith alone (fideism). Fideism removes all controls, or checks, on “faith,” since it is untethered from historical or logical considerations. But as Ray Martin points out, this is a difficult stance when so much of popular and academic culture is taking up the question of “the historical Jesus.” Conversely, some have just assumed that genuine historical investigation (about “the historical Jesus”) can never agree with the tenets of Christianity (the “Christ of faith”). They thus prejudice the issue.[2] Some even claim that historians qua historians can never discuss the miraculous. A better approach makes use of historical evidence and arguments in assessing the documents.

The Textual Transmission of the Gospels

Documents from antiquity are sometimes condemned for being ancient. Something several thousand years old could not have been preserved with integrity. Too many omissions, additions, and distortions would have crept in. In addition, many worry that ancient records—especially the New Testament—have been translated from one language to another to another, so that their original meaning has been lost.

The question of a document’s integrity (the preservation of the document’s original form over time) is separate from its original veracity (the truth of what the document affirms). An original document filled with factual errors might have been transmitted without distortion. It could be a well-preserved fiction or even a fraud. But if there are no good reasons to trust an ancient document’s integrity, its original veracity—or lack thereof—is of no consequence. Therefore, accurate transmission (integrity) is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for trusting a document from antiquity.

The integrity of the Gospels—and the rest of the New Testament—holds up extraordinarily well, especially in relation to other ancient candidates. First, it is false that modern translations of the Gospels have been corrupted by being translated from language to language—say from Greek to Latin to German to English. Translators of modern English editions consult primarily ancient Greek manuscripts. Greek is the original language of the Gospels.

Second, well over five thousand partial or complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are available to scholars today.[3] The number and quality of these manuscripts have increased during the last few decades as archaeologists unearth more records of the world’s most copied, recopied, and collected books. A fragment of the Gospel of John dates to the early second century, probably only a few decades after it was originally written. Given the large number and high quality of many of the early manuscripts, textual critics have a wealth of material from which to reconstruct the original records with a high degree of accuracy. No original manuscripts (autographs) are available for any ancient book, but historians often trust ancient records with far less textual attestation than that of the New Testament. For instance, Caesar’s The Gallic Wars dates from 100-44 BC. The earliest copy is from AD 900, with a gap of 1,000 years. Only ten ancient copies of this document exist.[4]

A more germane comparison is found between the manuscripts of the canonical Gospels and various so-called Gnostic Gospels.[5] The discovery of the ancient Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in 1945 gave scholars access to a wealth of primary sources on ancient Gnosticism,[6] a multifaceted and somewhat mysterious religious movement that stressed the need to transcend matter through mystical illumination (or “gnosis”—Greek for knowledge). James Robinson, editor of The Nag Hammadi Library, the authoritative collection of these documents, notes that many of the manuscripts are in very poor condition and, unlike the Bible, cannot be checked against a larger manuscript tradition outside of themselves.[7]

Modern translations of the New Testament Gospels make note of marginal or alternative readings, and of disputed sections (such as John 8:1-11 and Mark 16:9-20). The rest of these textually questionable sections of the Gospels make up no more than two or three verses and most only bring into question a small portion of one verse. These variations are noted in most modern translations. They do not bring into question any major event or teaching in Jesus’ life.

External (Extra-Biblical) Sources on Jesus

Historical references to Jesus are not limited to the New Testament documents, although these are the most detailed accounts. Some have argued that the relative scarcity and thinness of extra-biblical references to Jesus imperils our knowledge of him, since we are thrown back to the Gospels. The Gospels are the oldest extant biographical documents about Jesus, although some of Paul’s Epistles (which refer to Jesus, but are not biographies) were probably written earlier (in AD 50s). However, these facts do not jeopardize the trustworthiness of the Gospels. The records for any first century event are limited. Four biographies of Jesus and related references beyond them provide more than a sufficient amount of material, given the constraints of ancient history. Most written documents in ancient times focused on warfare, empires, and their leaders. If religious leaders were mentioned at all, it was because they occupied positions of institutional power. Jesus did not qualify for inclusion.

Several historically credible sources corroborate some Gospel claims about Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice in his Antiquities (AD 90-95), once in reference to James “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ,”[8] and once in a longer and disputed passage. Some think that later Christian editors added some favorable theological material.[9] But at a minimum it can be plausibly argued that Josephus writes that Jesus existed, was known as virtuous, was crucified, attracted many followers, worked wonders, and was believed to be risen from the dead.[10] Several decades after Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius also note the existence of Jesus, pertinent facts about his life, and the beliefs of his followers.[11]

Various relevant archaeological artifacts have been discovered, which date near or during the time of the events recorded in the Gospels. An ancient Jewish burial site unearthed in 1968 contains fifteen stone ossuaries holding the bones of thirty-five Jews who died in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. One victim is identified as Yohanan. Injuries to his bones indicate he was crucified. He was also buried in a private tomb, as was Jesus. This is significant because some scholars claim that victims of Roman crucifixion were not buried in this way, but left on the cross to be eaten by animals or tossed into group graves.[12] Other archaeological discoveries have also corroborated the existence of the pool of Bethesda, previously thought by some to be a literary invention of the Gospel of John (John 5:2);[13] the existence of Pontius Pilate, mentioned on a Latin plaque at Caesarea; the greatness of the temple in Jesus’ day; the manner of tomb in which Jesus was buried; and many other items.[14]

The Gospels: What Kind of Documents?

The Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense because they lack material that would be included today, such as Jesus’ physical appearance. They focus on the exceptional events accompanying his conception and birth, his public ministry of about three years, and especially the last week of his life before his betrayal and crucifixion. These documents are focused accounts of the significance of Jesus’ life and teachings, not news reports or exhaustive biographies, neither of which existed in antiquity.

Some question the historical accuracy of the Gospels because their writers had a theological agenda. Luke’s prologue explicitly states why he wrote his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). The Gospel of John offers a similar confession: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:35; see also 21:24). The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not make overt statements to this effect, but were written by advocates of the early Jesus movement. Neutrality or detached objectivity—if possible at all—is not required for honest and accurate reporting. Nor was it known or idealized in antiquity. Historians take seriously the accounts of Jews, such as Elie Wiesel, who were tortured in concentration camps, despite the survivors’ deeply committed perspectives.

The dimension of the miraculous is integral to all four Gospel accounts. The Gospels feature miraculous events, such as those surrounding Jesus’ birth, his ministry of healing the sick and raising the dead, his casting out of demons, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven.

However, David Hume has argued against the rationality of believing any miracle-claim, basing this on the vast improbability of the “laws of nature” being “violated.” He also impugns the credibility of the supposed witnesses to miracles and argues that the various miracle-claims offered by different religions cancel each other out.[15] All of Hume’s in-principle arguments have been seriously challenged by professional philosophers and others.[16] Ray Martin has also pointed out that, although many contemporary scholars who study the Gospels claim to be “objective” and “disinterested” in their pursuits, they really presuppose a questionable “methodological naturalism,” which absolutely precludes the supernatural from the purview of the historian.[17]

While the Gospels include miracles, other supernatural events, and theologically significant claims made by Jesus about himself, many scholars affirm that they read as historical, narrative, factual accounts—

not as embellished and fantastic myths. Their credibility is supported by their references to specific people, places, and events surrounding the life of Jesus. John, considered the most theologically oriented of the Gospel writers, makes abundant references to particular buildings and landscapes, many of which have been corroborated from archeology.[18]

The historian Will Durant, no friend of religion, observes in his multi-volume series, The Story of Civilization, that the Gospel writers included many things that “mere inventors would have concealed,” such as the apostles’ prideful competition for high places in the kingdom of God, Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus’ ignorance of the future, and his despairing cry on the cross. Durant did not accept everything in the Gospels, but he did observe the basic marks of authenticity.[19] Biblical scholar A. E. Harvey concurs: “In general, one can say that the miracle stories in the Gospels are unlike anything else in ancient literature” because “they do not exaggerate the miracle or add sensational details.” In other words, “they tell the story straight.”[20]

The Authorship of the Four Gospels

Who wrote the Gospels and when? If they were written by eyewitnesses or those who interviewed eyewitnesses during a time shortly following the events they narrate, the Gospels gain credibility.

First, the outer limit for when the Gospels (and other New Testament books) were written can be established by later Christian (postapostolic) sources that quote from them. Since historians are able to date these writings with some certainty, the Gospels must predate them. For example, Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, quotes or refers to all four Gospels in a letter dated at about AD 110. Ignatius wrote seven short letters in about AD 108, which mention or quote from every Gospel. Clement, writing from Rome in about AD 96, mentions the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke by name.[21]

Second, many reputable scholars date the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) at approximately AD 70 or earlier, with Mark usually dated first. John is usually dated sometime in the AD 90s, but some date him much earlier.[22] This places the accounts, whoever wrote them, just a few decades after the life of Jesus. Even the more liberal dating of Mark around AD 70 and Matthew and Luke sometime in the AD 80s still, by the standards of ancient historiography, puts the writings quite close to the events they record. Given the practice of memorizing the words of important teachers in an oral culture, this time gap is not damaging to the documents’ historical reliability.[23]

To put this into comparative perspective, the Buddhist Scriptures were not written down for about five hundred years after the life of Buddha (BC 563-483). Buddhist scholar Edward Conze notes that while Christianity can distinguish its “initial tradition, embodied in the ‘New Testament’” from a “continued tradition,” consisting of reflections of the church fathers and councils, “Buddhists possess nothing that corresponds to the ‘New Testament.’ The ‘continuing tradition’ is all that is clearly attested.”[24]

Third, the traditional authorship of the Gospels cannot be ruled out, although it is often questioned or rejected. The Gospels themselves were probably unsigned. The titles “The Gospel According to…” may have been added at a later date.[25] However, the earliest extra-biblical corroborating sources, which are from the second century, refer to the Gospels of Matthew and John as written by Jesus’ disciples, Luke as written by a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul, and the Gospel of Mark as written by a companion of the Apostle Peter. There is also some internal evidence to support the traditional authors.[26]

If the traditional authorship holds, the Gospel material is based on eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life or on those who consulted eyewitnesses (Mark relying on the Apostle Peter) or at least inquired into the events at a time not far removed from them (Luke’s investigations). Even if the traditional authorship is questioned or rejected, the documents are not rendered unreliable by that fact alone, given the considerations mentioned above.

The exact literary sources for the Gospels are much debated. The question of the sources for and relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is known as “the synoptic problem.” Many contemporary scholars believe that Mark was written first. Luke and Matthew rely on Mark’s material quite often, but both also have material in common that is not in Mark. This material is conjectured to be from a lost document called Q, taken from the German word for source, quelle. Some reputable scholars still hold to the traditional view that Matthew was written first. The Gospel of John has a considerable amount of material in common with the synoptic Gospels; it also includes some elements that are unique. [27]

The differences in the Gospel accounts on matters of detail or chronology have been extensively studied, and differing conclusions have been reached. Nevertheless, rather than proving that some of the accounts are erroneous, these differences demonstrate an absence of a flat uniformity that would indicate collusion. Each Gospel writer wrote to a specific audience and shaped his account accordingly. Moreover, ancient writers were not always bound by strict chronology. They may organize historical accounts thematically rather than chronologically. A difference of perspective between several accounts does not necessarily imply a contradiction or a fabrication.

All the Gospels agree on the central facts of Jesus’ life and death. The events surrounding his conception and birth were supernaturally tinged. His youth is not addressed in any detail. He was a carpenter by trade, as was his father. He began his public ministry at about age thirty after the endorsement of the prophet, John the Baptist. Jesus gathered disciples around himself, associated with various classes of people, including the despised of society (tax collectors, the handicapped, and women), preached the reality and pertinence of the kingdom of God, healed the sick, raised the dead, performed other types of miracles, and made dramatic theological claims about himself and his mission. He became progressively estranged from the religious establishment of the day and was put to death by crucifixion at the urging of that establishment and through the agency of the Roman state. He was buried and three days later rose from the dead and commissioned his followers to take his message to the ends of the earth until the end of the age. About all this, the Gospels are in straightforward agreement.

Jesus and Gnostic Documents

Some have hailed Gnostic documents as important sources about Jesus, despite their exclusion from the New Testament. The general Gnostic perspective asserts the worthlessness or evil of the physical world, affirms the existence of an ineffable highest realm called the pleroma (Greek for fullness), and rejects the God of the Old Testament as the Supreme Being. Gnosticism also advocates escape from the physical body through mystical self-knowledge and interprets the central human problem not as sin against God but as ignorance of one’s true origin in the realm beyond matter. Some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, have claimed that this mystical and dualistic tradition is on an equal or better footing than the Gospels with respect to the historical Jesus.[28] The Jesus Seminar includes “The Gospel of Thomas” in its main sources on Jesus. Hence the title of their book, The Five Gospels. Thomas is a collection of 114 short sayings by Jesus without a narrative context. Despite its title, modern scholars do not believe that Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is its author. Less than half of these sayings roughly resemble material in the synoptic Gospels, but are shorn of the historical frameworks provided by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The extra-canonical sayings emphasize the mystical and saving power of self-knowledge, an essential Gnostic theme not found in the four Gospels.

Of all the Gnostic accounts of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas is the leading candidate to be dated possibly as early as the first century, although many date it sometime in the middle of the second century. The earliest references to The Gospel of Thomas in ancient literature come from Hippolytus and Origen in the third century. These very late references are unlike the plentiful references to the four Gospels, which date as far back as the early second century. Such a long silence would be unlikely if Thomas were indeed a first century document.[29] Furthermore, Thomas quotes sayings paralleled in every Gospel and in every putative Gospel source (Q, etc.). These facts strongly suggest that Thomas is dependent on these previous sources. For these and other reasons, many scholars contend that Thomas dates after the canonical Gospels, and that it is not an original source for material on Jesus but a reworking of earlier accounts.[30] All the other Gnostic texts date well into the second or third centuries and are clearly dependent on a preexistent Jesus tradition, which they reinterpret according to a worldview alien and antithetical to the Gospels.

Historian Philip Jenkins persuasively argues that much of the contemporary interest in Gnostic “hidden gospels” (such as Thomas) is more a matter of ideological interest in overthrowing orthodoxy than of pure scholarship, since the evidence for the alternative sources is quite weak in relation to the canonical Gospels. Jenkins claims that the historical case for these alternative gospels is often stated in overly dramatic terms that obscure important issues.[31]

Nevertheless, some are attracted to the Gnostic materials because of their psychological insights, which differ considerably from perspectives in the canonical Gospels. Pagels find parallels between the Gnostic teachings and that of modern psychoanalysis, both of which emphasize inner knowledge as the source of human liberation.[32] Gnosticism claims that the inner or true self is divine, however, while most of psychoanalysis—especially the Freudian wing—works from a less metaphysically exalted sense of self. Psychiatrist and author Carl Jung (1875-1961), though not a biblical scholar, was significantly influenced by Gnosticism and claimed it was psychologically superior to orthodox Christianity.[33]

In light of the arguments of this chapter, the rest of this book will present the teachings and life of Jesus using the canonical Gospels as the main—but not only—sources of reference. This should offer further help to the reader in evaluating the internal evidence for the historicity and significance of the events described in these accounts.



[1] See Ben Witherington, III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

[2] See Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). For an argument for believing the New Testament without relying on historical evidence, see Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[3] Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 87.

[4] F.F Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1960), 16.

[5] The title “Gospel” is not fitting, since the literary genre is not that of the canonical Gospels, although the Gnostic texts do claim to give accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.

[6] Much was known previously of the basic Gnostic worldview through the writings of the church fathers and a few scattered other sources.

[7] James Robinson, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 2.

[8] Josephus, Antiquities 20:9.

[9] Ibid., 18:3.

[10] See Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 81-104.

[11] Ibid., 19-53.

[12] Jeffrey Sheler, Is The Bible True? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1999), 110-111.

[13] R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 131-132

[14] Ibid., 140-157.

[15] See David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of Miracles,” many editions.

[16] See C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975; orig. pub. 1947); R. Douglas Geivett, Gary R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997); and J. A. Cover, “Miracles and Christian Theism,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael M. Murray (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 345-374.

[17] Martin, 99-120.

[18] Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1986), 64.

[19] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 2, The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 557.

[20] A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 41-42.

[21] Barnett, 38-39.

[22] John A.T. Robinson dates all the Gospels before AD 70, largely because none of them mention the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. See Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).

[23] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 26-27.

[24] “Introduction,” in Buddhist Scriptures, ed. Edward Conze (New York: Penguin Books, 1959), 11-12.

[25] Martin Hengel disputes the traditional notion of unsigned Gospels in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity Press International, 2000).

[26] See the sections relating to authorship in Douglas Moo, D. A. Carson, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1992).

[27] See Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Leicester and Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), and Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh: An Incarnational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 409-430.

[28] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).

[29] Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1995), 134.

[30] Blomberg, Historical Reliability of The Gospels, 211-212.

[31] See Phillip Jenkins, The Hidden Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[32] Pagels, 119-141.

[33] C. J. Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 192.

19 comments:

Ben Goren said...

Professor Groothuis, your assertion that Jesus "was neither a king or social revolutionary" is astounding.

Have you never heard of the acronym "INRI"? Have you never read the Gospels?

If we are to believe the Gospels, Jesus was such a "social revolutionary" that he deserved the personal attention of the highest Jewish and Roman authorities. Jesus not only preached to vast crowds, he performed miracles for them. Even before he was born, his imminent appearance was known far and wide -- King Herod even went so far as to slaughter all the male infants in Judea (presumably, thousands if not tens of thousands of children) in an unsuccessful attempt at assassinating the boy who was destined to usurp his throne.

And, even after the man was dead and buried, he still didn't stop. For a month and a half afterwards, he continued his ministry, doing exactly that which had gotten the authorities to execute him in the first place -- only this time, with a gaping chest wound and holes in his hands and feet. John assures us that "there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."

Surely you must find it remarkable that not a single person who wrote at the time or for more than a generation later chose to make even passing mention of Jesus's name, let alone all the many other things he did.

Or do you deny the fact of the Resurrection? Do you disclaim the possibility of Pontius Pilate personally ordering Jesus's execution? Do you assert that the Sanhedrin didn't act like a bunch of drunken monkeys at Jesus's trial? Is it your position that Jesus never performed any of the very public miracles attributed to him? Do you believe that, rather than preaching to vast multitudes, only a small, close circle even knew who he was?

If so...why would you bother worshipping a random unknown mortal about whom everything we are supposed to believe is a lie?

Who, exactly, was Jesus, and how do you reconcile him with his perfect omission from the contemporary and near-contemporary record?

Cheers,

b&

Douglas Groothuis said...

Mr. Goren:

Here is my short response. A longer one from NT scholar, Craig Blomberg will follow.

Jesus did all that is attested to him in the Gospels. The Gospel and other NT evidence itself is sufficient to establish his credibility because of the internal evidence: multiple witnesses, inclusion of embarrassing material, miracles stories cut to the bone unlike mythological literature (C.S. Lewis and J.B. Phillips, among others speak to this), etc. The synoptics are dated before 70 AD very likely. Matthew was an eye-witness, as was John (probably later than the synoptics). Luke consulted eye witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Mark was an associate of the Apostle Peter. Paul also wrote of Jesus, although he converted shortly after Jesus' death. His Epistles are dated in roughly the 50s. Given the standards of ancient history, this is very strong evidence. Moreover, this was an oral culture that prized memory and oral tradition. The Gospels are rooted in this, as can be seen by Paul's references to previous creeds and hymns concerning Jesus, some of which are found in 1 Corinthians 15, and which speak of his resurrection.

Douglas Groothuis said...

From Dr. Craig Blomberg to Mr. Goren:

You might ask him directly what "contemporary" or "near-contemporary" sources (presumably he means closer in time than late-first-century Josephus) he thinks Jesus should have been mentioned in. I am not aware of a single historian whose works are extant, whether from Israel, Greece or Rome, who wrote any closer in time than Josephus in the last third of the first century or Suetonius and Tacitus in the early second century. There's a list of Greek and Roman writers that I've seen circulating around the web--about 10-15 whose works are in existence--from the first two-thirds of the first century or thereabouts that some people are claiming should have discussed Jesus but not one is a work of history of biography of figures in Israel. Most people probably just pass on the list, which apparently comes from some 19th-century skeptic, with no knowledge of who the individuals even are but they include a geographer, a botanist, people writing about life far away from Israel, etc., etc.

I'd probably also correct him on the fact that the Bible says only that Herod's troops killed the babies in and around Bethlehem, a hamlet of a few hundred people; hence, perhaps as few as twenty babies were killed, that the gospels are very clear that Jesus made no public resurrection appearances to convince skeptics en masse but only to groups of those who were already his followers, and that as for the Roman and Jewish leaders these are precisely the circles in which subsequent testimonies to Jesus DO appear, but this was a culture of oral tradition. Nobody wrote about Alexander during his lifetime either. The earliest extant sources for the greatest general the ancient world ever knew are from later first and early second century A.D. and they refer to written, but now lost, sources on which they relied that go back to about 200 years after Alexander's death in 323 B.C. Oral cultures memorize and pass things on by word of mouth, with remarkable reliability, sometimes for centuries. Greek and English schoolboys often committed large parts, if not all, of either the Iliad or Odyssey to memory and rabbinic students did the same with what we call the Old Testament and at times large portions of what became the Mishnah as well. Most people couldn't read, writing, writing materials and book production was expensive and only something for the wealthy, so to look for something in writing at an early date is to impose a wildly anachronistic standard on ancient oral cultures.

Douglas Groothuis said...

From Dr. Craig Blomberg to Mr. Goren. Part I:

You might ask him directly what "contemporary" or "near-contemporary" sources (presumably he means closer in time than late-first-century Josephus) he thinks Jesus should have been mentioned in. I am not aware of a single historian whose works are extant, whether from Israel, Greece or Rome, who wrote any closer in time than Josephus in the last third of the first century or Suetonius and Tacitus in the early second century. There's a list of Greek and Roman writers that I've seen circulating around the web--about 10-15 whose works are in existence--from the first two-thirds of the first century or thereabouts that some people are claiming should have discussed Jesus but not one is a work of history of biography of figures in Israel. Most people probably just pass on the list, which apparently comes from some 19th-century skeptic, with no knowledge of who the individuals even are but they include a geographer, a botanist, people writing about life far away from Israel, etc., etc.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Part II from Dr. Blomberg:


I'd probably also correct him on the fact that the Bible says only that Herod's troops killed the babies in and around Bethlehem, a hamlet of a few hundred people; hence, perhaps as few as twenty babies were killed, that the gospels are very clear that Jesus made no public resurrection appearances to convince skeptics en masse but only to groups of those who were already his followers, and that as for the Roman and Jewish leaders these are precisely the circles in which subsequent testimonies to Jesus DO appear, but this was a culture of oral tradition. Nobody wrote about Alexander during his lifetime either. The earliest extant sources for the greatest general the ancient world ever knew are from later first and early second century A.D. and they refer to written, but now lost, sources on which they relied that go back to about 200 years after Alexander's death in 323 B.C. Oral cultures memorize and pass things on by word of mouth, with remarkable reliability, sometimes for centuries. Greek and English schoolboys often committed large parts, if not all, of either the Iliad or Odyssey to memory and rabbinic students did the same with what we call the Old Testament and at times large portions of what became the Mishnah as well. Most people couldn't read, writing, writing materials and book production was expensive and only something for the wealthy, so to look for something in writing at an early date is to impose a wildly anachronistic standard on ancient oral cultures.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Dr Blomberg also wanted me to mention is book, "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels," revised edition (1987; InterVarsity Press, 2007).

Douglas Groothuis said...

Another comment from Dr. Blomberg for Mr. Goren:
------
I'd ask him how he thought Christianity began since there is unbroken evidence for its existence from the first century onward and nothing prior to that time. And if he appeals to mythologies like Mithraism or whatever as parallels, point out that they never claimed to be originated from individuals known to be humans living in recent memory. Does he believe Muhammad existed? Gautama Buddha? Confucius? Lao-tse? There is, to my knowledge, no religion, large or small anywhere in human history that has claimed to come from a real human founder alive during the lifetimes of those who claimed to follow him or her who was in fact not a real human being. That doesn't mean everything religious followers claim about their founders is always true, but it does they mean they existed!

Ben Goren said...

Professor Groothius, you're trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

Obviously, for Jesus to have any meaning at all for Christianity, his story had to have been the most important, most spectacular in all of history.

Equally obviously, Jesus was unknown to history at least before the second half of the first century. The only way Jesus could have actually existed without leaving any impression at all is if he was a nobody and there wasn't anybody around to notice, anyway.

Which position is it you wish to argue?

I'll grant you all your unsupportable assertions, including that the Gospels were written by the men whose names have been attributed to them, and that they wrote them in the late '60s. The reality is much different, but I'll pretend otherwise for the sake of argument.

Does it really make sense to you that the first person to write of Jesus would be a man who most emphatically never met him, and that he would wait until a couple decades after his death to write of him?

How can it possibly make sense that his apostles -- men who proved by their very writings that they were well-educated Greek scholars -- would wait yet another couple decades before writing their accounts?

But, much more importantly, how do you explain the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls, penned before, during, and after Jesus's alleged lifetime, make no mention of him? Can you really fathom a repository that includes the intact prophesies of Isaiah as well as contemporary commentary on messianic prophets could possibly omit mention of what you claim to be the actual, well-evidenced incarnation of the fulfillment of those prophesies? Even if there were differences of opinion, for the authors of the Scrolls to refrain on denouncing the false prophet with such a vast following seems inconceivable.

(continued...)

Ben Goren said...

(continued...)

And how do you explain the fact that the man who created the foundation of Christian philosophy, the Logos, who was also the brother in law of King Herod Agrippa, and who personally petitioned Caligula in Rome to stop crucifying Jews -- how do you explain Philo's silence? His exhaustive writings have been preserved at least as well as the Gospels.

Those two sources alone put paid to the idea that Jesus was who you claim him to have been. At most, he was a nobody -- but, again, such a notion contradicts the sources we do have that mention him. All those sources are unanimous in agreement that Jesus was a larger-than-life figure.

Blomberg makes mention of a list of early sources who failed to mention Jesus, and he dismisses them because they weren't historians who catalogued obscure religious figures. His dismissal is most disingenuous; it's not an obscure religious figure we're looking for, but Jesus Himself. Again this is the man whose birth was known across the land before the fact, and the man who conquered death itself.

Even so, there are plenty on that list in the various incarnations of it I've seen who would have noticed a Jesus even vaguely like what the Gospels describe him to have been. There's Seneca whose Stoicism would have made him sympathetic to the Christian philosophy and Jesus's plight. There's Plutarch, who was obsessed with exactly the kind of prophet Jesus is alleged to have been. There's Justus, who was a close associate of Herod Agrippa. There's Damis, who wrote of Jesus's contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana.

And, for that matter, how could Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, and Persius all have failed to have satirized Jesus? Such was their stock in trade. Again, unless you wish to blaspheme Jesus by proclaiming him to be a nobody whom nobody noticed.

Lastly, Dr. Blomberg asks for what I think are the origins of Christianity since it's so obvious that Jesus was made up. For that, the answer is trivial. Justin Martyr tells us the what, in his exhaustive catalogue of Pagan antecedents that the early Christians so obviously copied, and Lucian tells us the how with his account of Peregrinus hoodwinking the Christians.

Really, this should in no way be surprising. I'm sure you'd attribute the origins of each and every other religion that you don't believe in to a similarly-humble source. Or do you really think that Joseph Smith found those golden tablets, or that an angel dictated the Quran to Mohammad, or that L. Ron Hubbard's tale of Xenu has any bearing on reality?

Cheers,

b&

Ben Goren said...

(continued...)

And how do you explain the fact that the man who created the foundation of Christian philosophy, the Logos, who was also the brother in law of King Herod Agrippa, and who personally petitioned Caligula in Rome to stop crucifying Jews -- how do you explain Philo's silence? His exhaustive writings have been preserved at least as well as the Gospels.

Those two sources alone put paid to the idea that Jesus was who you claim him to have been. At most, he was a nobody -- but, again, such a notion contradicts the sources we do have that mention him. All those sources are unanimous in agreement that Jesus was a larger-than-life figure.

Blomberg makes mention of a list of early sources who failed to mention Jesus, and he dismisses them because they weren't historians who catalogued obscure religious figures. His dismissal is most disingenuous; it's not an obscure religious figure we're looking for, but Jesus Himself. Again this is the man whose birth was known across the land before the fact, and the man who conquered death itself.

Even so, there are plenty on that list in the various incarnations of it I've seen who would have noticed a Jesus even vaguely like what the Gospels describe him to have been. There's Seneca whose Stoicism would have made him sympathetic to the Christian philosophy and Jesus's plight. There's Plutarch, who was obsessed with exactly the kind of prophet Jesus is alleged to have been. There's Justus, who was a close associate of Herod Agrippa. There's Damis, who wrote of Jesus's contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana.

And, for that matter, how could Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, and Persius all have failed to have satirized Jesus? Such was their stock in trade. Again, unless you wish to blaspheme Jesus by proclaiming him to be a nobody whom nobody noticed.

Lastly, Dr. Blomberg asks for what I think are the origins of Christianity since it's so obvious that Jesus was made up. For that, the answer is trivial. Justin Martyr tells us the what, in his exhaustive catalogue of Pagan antecedents that the early Christians so obviously copied, and Lucian tells us the how with his account of Peregrinus hoodwinking the Christians.

Really, this should in no way be surprising. I'm sure you'd attribute the origins of each and every other religion that you don't believe in to a similarly-humble source. Or do you really think that Joseph Smith found those golden tablets, or that an angel dictated the Quran to Mohammad, or that L. Ron Hubbard's tale of Xenu has any bearing on reality?

Cheers,

b&

Ben Goren said...

(continued...)

And how do you explain the fact that the man who created the foundation of Christian philosophy, the Logos, who was also the brother in law of King Herod Agrippa, and who personally petitioned Caligula in Rome to stop crucifying Jews -- how do you explain Philo's silence? His exhaustive writings have been preserved at least as well as the Gospels.

Those two sources alone put paid to the idea that Jesus was who you claim him to have been. At most, he was a nobody -- but, again, such a notion contradicts the sources we do have that mention him. All those sources are unanimous in agreement that Jesus was a larger-than-life figure.

Blomberg makes mention of a list of early sources who failed to mention Jesus, and he dismisses them because they weren't historians who catalogued obscure religious figures. His dismissal is most disingenuous; it's not an obscure religious figure we're looking for, but Jesus Himself. Again this is the man whose birth was known across the land before the fact, and the man who conquered death itself.

Even so, there are plenty on that list in the various incarnations of it I've seen who would have noticed a Jesus even vaguely like what the Gospels describe him to have been. There's Seneca whose Stoicism would have made him sympathetic to the Christian philosophy and Jesus's plight. There's Plutarch, who was obsessed with exactly the kind of prophet Jesus is alleged to have been. There's Justus, who was a close associate of Herod Agrippa. There's Damis, who wrote of Jesus's contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana.

(continued...)

Ben Goren said...

(continued...)

And, for that matter, how could Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, and Persius all have failed to have satirized Jesus? Such was their stock in trade. Again, unless you wish to blaspheme Jesus by proclaiming him to be a nobody whom nobody noticed.

Lastly, Dr. Blomberg asks for what I think are the origins of Christianity since it's so obvious that Jesus was made up. For that, the answer is trivial. Justin Martyr tells us the what, in his exhaustive catalogue of Pagan antecedents that the early Christians so obviously copied, and Lucian tells us the how with his account of Peregrinus hoodwinking the Christians.

Really, this should in no way be surprising. I'm sure you'd attribute the origins of each and every other religion that you don't believe in to a similarly-humble source. Or do you really think that Joseph Smith found those golden tablets, or that an angel dictated the Quran to Mohammad, or that L. Ron Hubbard's tale of Xenu has any bearing on reality?

Cheers,

b&

Rich Griese said...

Dear Doug,

You mentioned the gospels as "primary sources". they are not primary sources, they are secondary sources at best.

it is not clear that jesus started anything. what we know is that a religion that claims a jesus character as founder exists, but that could have been created by people later. like irenaeus or plycarp or clement.

Also, we need to keep these things clear. the characters, the narrator, the author.

All our gospels are anonymous, we have no idea who the authors are.

If you are interested in talking more about early christianity, feel free to email me. I am always happy to meet new friends to talk to via email.

Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

Douglas Groothuis said...

For those who have said that I don't post views I disagree with, please consult most of the above posts.

I do not have time to respond to all of Mr. Goren's charges, but I can make a basic argument against his claim that Jesus never existed--a claim that has no purchase in even the most liberal realms of NT scholarship.

Goren argues:

1. If Jesus had exists, then just about everyone who had ever heard of him at the time and who had access to a writing implement would have written of him.

2. But all these people did not write of him.

3. Therefore, Jesus did not exist.

The argument form is valid in form, but the second premise is false for several reasons, some of which have already been given my myself or Dr. Blomberg. But here are a few more points:

A. Writing was not as widespread of commonly disseminated in the First Century and news traveled much slower than now. Many may have heard of Jesus, but since the movement was young, did not consider him very important at that time.

B. We cannot assume that everyone who had heard of Jesus would want to write of him. Take the Dead Sea Scrolls, which probably end at AD 70. Why would they write of Jesus when the documents we have are of the OT and the writings of the Essenes themselves? They were not journalists! To argue that they did not write of Jesus, therefore, he did not exist, is an argument from silence and is fallacious. This fallacy is common in Mr. Goren's claims. But absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.

C. Jesus did live the most consequential life of all time, but that does not imply that everyone in the ancient world recognize this as such in short order. The gospels claim that many of Jesus own time failed to see him for who he was because of hardness of heart.

If Jesus did not even exist, how can one explain the origin of Christianity? It cannot be on the basis of mystery religions cobbled together, as Blomberg pointed out.

Douglas Groothuis said...

For those who have said that I don't post views I disagree with, please consult most of the above posts.

I do not have time to respond to all of Mr. Goren's charges, but I can make a basic argument against his claim that Jesus never existed--a claim that has no purchase in even the most liberal realms of NT scholarship.

Goren argues:

1. If Jesus had exists, then just about everyone who had ever heard of him at the time and who had access to a writing implement would have written of him.

2. But all these people did not write of him.

3. Therefore, Jesus did not exist.

The argument form is valid in form, but the second premise is false for several reasons, some of which have already been given my myself or Dr. Blomberg. But here are a few more points:

A. Writing was not as widespread of commonly disseminated in the First Century and news traveled much slower than now. Many may have heard of Jesus, but since the movement was young, did not consider him very important at that time.

Douglas Groothuis said...

B. We cannot assume that everyone who had heard of Jesus would want to write of him. Take the Dead Sea Scrolls, which probably end at AD 70. Why would they write of Jesus when the documents we have are of the OT and the writings of the Essenes themselves? They were not journalists! To argue that they did not write of Jesus, therefore, he did not exist, is an argument from silence and is fallacious. This fallacy is common in Mr. Goren's claims. But absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.

C. Jesus did live the most consequential life of all time, but that does not imply that everyone in the ancient world recognize this as such in short order. The gospels claim that many of Jesus own time failed to see him for who he was because of hardness of heart.

If Jesus did not even exist, how can one explain the origin of Christianity? It cannot be on the basis of mystery religions cobbled together, as Blomberg pointed out.

Craig Blomberg said...

For Ben Goren, who didn't read my comments that Doug forwarded very carefully:

Did Alexander the Great exist? Might historians be right that he was the greatest general the ancient Mediterranean world ever saw? Then how do you account for no existing biographies of him for 500 years and none reported that once existed for 200 years? Reread what i wrote about oral cultures.

Why nothing among the Essene literature? 1) most of it was pre-Christian; 2) none of it was historical in genre--instead it contains manuals of discipline, prayers, psalms, hymns, apocalypses, biblical commentaries, etc. There is nothing in any of the Qumran scrolls about any first-century people by name.

Why nothing in Philo? Same three reasons. Most is written just before the time of Jesus. None of it is written about contemporary history. It is philosophical discourse and biblical ocmmentary The only characters that appear are biblical ones. Plus Philo died in 50. When did the accounts of Jesus' life first reach Alexandria in Egypt where Philo lived? We don't know for sure but maybe not even this early.

As for the Greek and Roman writers you cite, they don't refer to Jewish characters in general. You might as well complain that they don't refer to Hillel or Shammai or Nicodemus or Gamaliel or ben Gurion or known miracle workers like Hanina ben Dosa or Honi the Rainmaker. You keep on confusing apples with oranges. Non-Jewish (and even Jewish) writers living outside of Israel who were writing philosophy or poetry or plays or satire but not works of a historical genre are not the places to look for references for Jesus--or any other historical figures! You might just as well argue that Hitler and Churchill didn't exist because you don't find references to them in countless theological, liturgical, philosophical, poetical, and other works written in German and in English during World War II.

And you completely missed my point about the founders of other religions. The question is not whether you or I believe that Joseph Smith found the golden tablets or Muhammad received the Qur'an by dictation from heaven, etc., but whether we believe Joseph Smith, Muhammad (and even L. Ron Hubbard) existed. Of course they existed.

As for Apollonius of Tyans, he lived after the time of Christ, and all of the close parallels with Jesus that Philostratus narrates (not until centuries later) about him, like all the parallels of any similarity that Justin reports pagans pointing to are also all post-Christian. If anybody copied from anybody, and maybe no one did, chronologically it had to be the pagans copying from the Christians not the other way around.

If you want to have a worthwhile scholarly conversation, by all means debate whether Smith, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Hubbard, or Jesus of Nazareth, did everything attributed to them and whether they were who their followers thought they were. Those are complicated, important and fascinating debates. But to allege that any of these figures did not exist is just historically silly and you lose all credibility among those who understand historiography.

Tim said...

Back when skeptics wrote like men, even the enemies of Christianity realized the futility of arguments from silence. Here, for example, is Ernst Renan, The Apostles (New York: Carleton, 1875), p. 227:

As to the Greek and Latin writers, it is not surprising that they paid little attention to a movement which they could not comprehend, and which was going on within a narrow space foreign to them. Christianity was lost to their vision upon the dark background of Judaism. It was only a family quarrel amongst the subjects of a degraded nation; why trouble themselves about it? The two or three passages in which Tacitus and Suetonius mention the Christians show that the new sect, even if generally beyond the visual circle of full publicity, was, notwithstanding, a prominent fact, since we are enabled at intervals to catch a glimpse of it defining itself with considerable clearness of outline through the mist of public inattention.

Alex Dalton said...

Dr. Groothuis,

You wrote "Jesus did all that is attested to him in the Gospels."

How can we possibly be sure of that? There are some very intelligent moderate New Testament scholars like Craig Evans, James Dunn, etc. who would admit that certain events in the gospels are not historically true, but rather they teach a lesson about Christ or are true to the nature of his character.

A historical literalism that sees all the events reported in the gospels as having actually occurred seems to be an assumption, rather than anything that follows from the nature of the literature.

Consider that the methods of teaching that God incarnate chose to employ were for the most part, non-literal. Jesus teaches in proverbs (generalizations), parables (fictional stories), apocalyptic discourses (highly symbolic and non-literal), and frequently employs overstatement and hyperbole.

If God teaches this way, when he comes in the form of a man upon the earth, why in the world would we assume that the Spirit inspired the authors of the Gospels to only teach via literal historical reporting. Truth can be conveyed, often more effectively, by other means.