Academic

Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? Part Seven:  ‘I am he.’ – So what… 

Written by Alex Smith. In the conclusion to his semester-spanning critical examination of the gospels as historical documents, Alex Smith pauses to reflect over their full significance.

This is the seventh part in an article series titled: Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? To read the rest of the series click here. The full bibliography for the series is available here.

“It is hard to know if the Gospel writers themselves were aware of the ultimate impact their writings about Jesus would produce. If they had known the impact their works would come to have, they would likely have been amazed at how God has used their writings. Their goal was to witness to Jesus and strengthen the new communities formed around him. They wrote about the Jesus they knew, the Jesus they preached, and the Jesus others needed to know. They succeeded far beyond what they likely intended. This is why studying Jesus as presented in these four Gospels is so profitable. The impact these Gospels have had on the world can hardly be exaggerated. Whatever sceptical criticism of the Bible has tried to do with these Gospels, there is no denying the importance of these four treatments of Jesus in the history of thought. It is a fact of history that whoever were the original recipients of these Gospels, the eventual audience has extended far beyond those limits, making these Gospels “classic” texts in every sense of that term” 

Dr Darrell Bock: Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 

After examining the evidence in this series of articles it is reasonable to conclude that the canonical Gospels are reliable sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the overskeptical hypotheses are remnants of old, disproved scholarship and need to be abandoned. The Gospels fit within the broad genre of Greco-Roman biography and make historical claims. There are good reasons for thinking that the Gospels’ traditionally ascribed authors did write them, and that they are written by eyewitnesses, or strongly based upon eyewitness testimony. The predominantly oral society which the Gospels were written in, as well as modern understandings of memory, suggest that the eyewitnesses behind the Gospels accurately remembered what had happened. This is supported by the accurate geography, proportions of Jewish names, and undesigned coincidences contained within the Gospels. In contrast the extracanonical Gospels are too late, have no evidence linking them to the eyewitness tradition, and contain far less specific, or accurate, verifiable detail. The Jesus of the Gospels is the closest we can get to the historical Jesus. 

But why does any of this matter? A popular ancient historian, Tom Holland, used to think that his secular, liberal, western values were rooted in the enlightenment and the classical world. However, after studying antiquity, he came to a very different conclusion. Writing in the New Statesman in 2016 he said, 

‘”We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, ‘unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.’ He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves. 

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.’ 

The worldviews of the modern West, of Scotland, and of Edinburgh, are rooted in the character of Jesus of Nazareth. It is because of Early Christianity that we see all people as having intrinsic value and see sacrifice for those who do not deserve it as noble. A good example of this can be seen in an article I wrote about ‘Early Christian Responses to the Antonine Plague’, in the Retrospect issue ‘Prejudice and Pandemics’, The ways the Christians and the ‘pagans’ responded to this ancient plague were vastly different.  The pagans fled Rome and abandoned the sufferers, leaving their dead unburied. In contrast, the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, saving many, but some of the carers died. They sacrificed themselves so others would live. This is not to argue that modern, secular people cannot do good things, or that Christianity has been the sole influence on our culture, but that our society owes far more to Christianity, and consequently to Jesus of Nazareth, than is often realised. But, as argued by Helen Bond in the quote at the beginning of this series, Christianity is about more than moral values. ‘Fundamental to Christian belief is the Incarnation, the idea that God became human in one historical person.’ All the Christian, and consequently Western, moral values are nothing without Jesus.  

Around 125 C.E. a Christian philosopher, Aristides, summarised what Christians believe in a letter to Emperor Hadrian. He wrote, 

The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. 

His message was that God became human, was crucified, buried, and then raised from the dead to save those who turn away from him. He references the Gospels and the disciples, a link to eyewitness testimony. He summarises the message of the Gospels. The historical Jesus is the most important person in human history, and the question of whether we can know about his life is one of the most important historical questions that can be asked. That is what makes the question, ‘Are the Gospels reliable sources?’ so important.  

Written by Alex Smith

Bibliography

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