Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are the Gospels Myth?

by Carl E. Olson , Ignatius Insight Scoop

January 11, 49 B.C. is one of the most famous dates in the history of ancient Rome, even of the ancient world. On that date Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, committing himself and his followers to civil war. Few, if any, historians doubt that the event happened. On the other hand, numerous skeptics claim that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are myth and have no basis in historical fact. Yet, as historian Paul Merkley pointed out two decades ago in his article, "The Gospels as Historical Testimony," far less historical evidence exists for the crossing of the Rubicon than does for the events depicted in the Gospels:

There are no firsthand testimonies to Caesar's having crossed the Rubicon (wherever it was). Caesar himself makes no mention in his memoirs of crossing any river. Four historians belonging to the next two or three generations do mention a Rubicon River, and claim that Caesar crossed it. They are: Velleius Paterculus (c.19 B.C. – c.A.D. 30); Plutarch (c.A.D. 46-120); Suetonius (75-160); and Appian (second century). All of these evidently depended on the one published eyewitness account, that of Asinius Pollio (76 B.C.-c. A.D. 4) which account has disappeared without a trace. No manuscript copies for any of these secondary sources is to be found earlier than several hundred years after their composition. (The Evangelical Quarterly 58, 319-336)

Merkley observed that those skeptics who either scoff at the historical reliability of the Gospels or reject them outright as "myth" do so without much, if any, regard for the nature of history in general and the contents of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in particular.

The Distinctive Sign

. . . . For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnates est — when we say these words, we acknowledge God's actual entry into real history. (Jesus of Nazareth, xv). . . .

Smarter than Thou

Such rhetoric rests both on the assumption that the Gospels are fanciful myth and that the authors of the New Testament (and their readers) were clueless about the difference between historical events and fictional stories. There is an overbearing sense of chronological snobbery at work: We are smarter than people who lived 2,000 years ago. Yet the Second Epistle of Peter demonstrates a clear understanding of the difference between myth and verified historical events: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16). The opening verses of Luke's Gospel indicate that the author undertook the task of writing about real people and events:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4)

And the fourth Gospel concludes with similar remarks:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did: were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25) . . . .

What Is a Gospel?

"The majority of recent specialized studies," writes Evangelical biblical scholar Craig L. Blomberg in Making Sense of the New Testament, "has recognized that the closest parallels are found among the comparatively trustworthy histories and biographies of writers like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides" (28). In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Catholic theologian and biblical scholar Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes:

We must conclude, then, that the genre of the Gospel is not that of pure "history"; but neither is it that of myth, fairy tale, or legend. In fact, evangelion constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising novelty in the literature of the ancient world. Matthew does not seek to be "objective" in a scientific or legal sense. He is writing as one whose life has been drastically changed by the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, he is proposing to his listeners an objective reality of history, but offered as kerygma, that is, as a proclamation that bears personal witness to the radical difference that reality has already made in his life. (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. II: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, 44) . . . .

The Historical Evidence

First, there is the sheer number of ancient copies of the New Testament. There are close to 5,700 full or partial Greek New Testament manuscripts in existence. Most of these date from between the second to 16th century, with the oldest, known as Papyrus 52 (which contains John 18), dating from around A.D. 100-150. By comparison, the average work by a classical author — such as Tacitus (c. A.D. 56-c. 120), Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113), Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), and Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) — has about 20 extant manuscripts, the earliest copy usually several centuries newer than the original. For example, the earliest copy of works by the prominent Roman historian Suetonius (A.D. 75-130) date to A.D. 950 — over 800 years after the original manuscripts had been written.

In addition to the thousands of Greek manuscripts, there are an additional 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and thousands of additional manuscripts in Syriac, Aramaic, and Coptic, for a total of about 24,000 full or partial manuscripts of the New Testament. And then there are the estimated one million quotes from the New Testament in the writings of the Church Fathers (A.D. 150-1300). Obviously, the more manuscripts that are available, the better scholars are able to assess accurately what the original manuscripts contained and to correct errors that may exist in various copies.

When Were They Written?

Closely related is the matter of dating. While debate continues as to the exact dating of the Gospels, few biblical scholars believe that any of the four works were written after the end of the first century. "Liberal New Testament scholars today," writes Blomberg, "tend to put Mark a few years one side or the other of A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke — Acts sometime in the 80s, and John in the 90s" (Making Sense of the New Testament, 25). Meanwhile, many conservative scholars date the synoptic Gospels (and Acts) in the 60s and John in the 90s. That means, simply, that there exist four accounts of key events in Jesus' life written within 30 to 60 years after his Crucifixion — and this within a culture that placed a strong emphasis on the role and place of an accurate oral tradition. Anyone who denies that Jesus existed or who claims that the Gospels are filled with historical errors or fabrications will, in good conscience, have to explain why they don't make the same assessment about the historical works of Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Julius Caesar, Livy, Josephus, Tacitus, and other classical authors.

Secondly, historical details are found in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. These include numerous mentions of secular rulers and leaders (Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Felix, Archelaus, Agrippa, Gallio), as well as Jewish leaders (Caiaphas, Ananias) — the sort of names unlikely to be used inaccurately or even to show up in a "myth." Anglican scholar Paul Barnett, in Is The New Testament Reliable?, provides several pages' worth of intersections between biblical and non-biblical sources regarding historical events and persons. "Christian sources contribute, on an equal footing with non-Christian sources," he observes, "pieces of information that form part of the fabric of known history. In matters of historical detail, the Christian writers are as valuable to the historian as the non-Christian" (167).

Then there are the specifically Jewish details, including references to and descriptions of festivals, religious traditions, farming and fishing equipment, buildings, trades, social structures, and religious hierarchies. As numerous books and articles have shown in recent decades, the beliefs and ideas found in the Gospels accurately reflect a first-century Jewish context. All of this is important in responding to the claim that the Gospels were written by authors who used Greek and Egyptian myths to create a supernatural man-god out of the faint outline of a lowly Jewish carpenter.

Pay Dirt

Various modern archeological discoveries have validated specific details found in the Gospels:

  • In 1961 a mosaic from the third century was found in Caesarea Maritima that had the name "Nazareth" in it. This is the first known ancient non-biblical reference to Nazareth.
  • Coins with the names of the Herod family have been discovered, including the names of Herod the king, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (who killed John the Baptist), Herod Agrippa I (who killed James Zebedee), and Herod Agrippa II (before whom Paul testified).
  • In 1990 an ossuary was found inscribed with the Aramaic words, "Joseph son of Caiaphas," believed to be a reference to the high priest Caiaphas.
  • In 1968 an ossuary was discovered near Jerusalem bearing the bones of a man who had been executed by crucifixion in the first century. These are the only known remains of a man crucified in Roman Palestine, and verify the descriptions given in the Gospels of Jesus' Crucifixion.
  • In June 1961 Italian archaeologists excavating an ancient Roman amphitheatre near Caesarea-on-the-Sea (Maritima) uncovered a limestone block. On its face is an inscription (part of a larger dedication to Tiberius Caesar) that reads: "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea."

Numerous other finds continue to demolish the notion that the Gospels are mythologies filled with fictional names and events.

The External Evidence

Third, there are extra-biblical, ancient references to Jesus and early Christianity. Although the number of non-Christian Roman writings from the first half of the first century is quite small (just a few volumes), there are a couple of significant references.

Writing to the Emperor Trajan around A.D. 112, Pliny the Younger reported on the trials of certain Christians arrested by the Romans. He noted that those who are "really Christians" would never curse Christ:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. (Letters, Book 10, Letter 96)

The historian Tacitus, in his Annals — considered by historians to be one the finest works of ancient Roman history mentioned how the Emperor Nero, following the fire in Rome in A.D. 64, persecuted Christians in order to draw attention away from himself. The passage is noteworthy as an unfriendly source because although Tacitus thought Nero was appalling, he also despised the foreign and, to him, superstitious religion of Christianity:

Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. (Annals, 15:44) . . . .

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