There are still those who might acknowledge the complete reliability of extant copies of the New Testament in representing the originals, but still dispute the reliability of the originals in recording what was actually taught by Jesus and the apostles, and therefore also dispute that “Jesus has risen from the dead” was the original message of his first followers.
The assertion is that most of the New Testament was written long after the lifetimes of the apostles, and so its component documents are not reliable eyewitness accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
The folks at the “Jesus Seminar”are, once again, a handy example of this thinking:
“Jesus’ followers did not grasp the subtleties of his position… the gospel writers overlaid the tradition of sayings and parables with their own ‘memories’ of Jesus. They constructed their memories out of common lore, drawn in large part from the Greek Bible (I assume they mean the Septuagint), the message of John the Baptist, and their own emerging convictions about Jesus as the expected messiah—the Anointed. The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic words of Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.” (pg. 4 of the introduction to The Five Gospels; emphasized text added)
According to them, the “real” Jesus was forgotten by the early Christians, but today—two millennia later—modern liberal scholars have a much better vantage point than they from which to “grasp the subtleties of his position.”
“They just didn’t get him like we do,” they say, and without the barest hint of irony. That superior vantage point, of course, comes from not having their academic powers “overpowered by faith” as the early Christians were in their memories of Jesus.
We know today, they say, what they didn’t know in the ancient world, which is that the real Jesus of history could not have been the person described in the New Testament, for the most part, because such a Person could not exist. The “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” then, are two distinct persons—one real and historical, the other a fictional, legendary figure projected upon and mistaken for the real person.
The historical Jesus must nonetheless have been an extraordinary ethical and religious teacher and example to have inspired the movement and the legends that grew up in his name, but there was nothing supernatural about him, they insist. Rather, the writers of the New Testament compiled legends and exaggerations which had developed around Jesus and wrote them as actual accounts of his life, the argument goes. So, when we read about miraculous feats performed by Jesus—those were legends, or metaphors at best for “what Jesus meant to them,” which had grown out of popular folklore. When we read about events in the life of Jesus that fit perfectly with specific messianic predictions by the prophets centuries earlier—those didn’t actually happen that way, but were tall tales and fish stories, so to speak, projected upon him by later generations of followers. Furthermore, when we read about Jesus actually claiming to be the One foretold by the prophets—because such a claim would be completely out of character for such an unprecedented ethical genius, those must also have been projected upon him by later generations.
Of course, for this revisionist narrative to be true, much of the New Testament had to have been written much later than sooner. Legends such as those recorded therein take time to develop, and were less likely to do so in competition with actual firsthand memories of Jesus. So, the four Gospels must have been composed sometime long after Jesus’ life and ministry, after all or most of his original followers had passed.
The work of scholars in recovering the “historical Jesus,” then, consists of stripping away those “later layers of tradition”—those reflecting a “high Christology,” that is, along with other telltale qualities, in order to unearth the “authentic memories” of Jesus buried underneath. The more supernatural or messianic the saying or deed, the more likely it is to be deemed the product of a later development of tradition, so by process of elimination, they whittle the Gospel accounts down to find the actual history embedded therein.
“Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, according to the Jesus Seminar.” The Five Gospels (pg. 5)
So when I say that it’s “an undisputable historical fact” that the apostles claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, a common objection is that the consensus among scholars precludes the reliability of the Gospels in establishing that fact, on account of their supposedly late composition and legendary character. Conventional skeptical wisdom has it that traditional Christianity has been “disproven” by the “assured results of modern biblical criticism,” so the claim that “Jesus has risen from the dead” can’t be offered as the first Christians’ original message, nor as an historical fact to be accounted for, since it’s been debunked by modern scholarship.
Except, traditional Christianity has hardly been “disproven” by “the assured results of critical scholarship.” Those results are most certainly assured, but only because they’re not actually the results of their scholarship. They’re the starting point. The game was rigged from the start.
“The question of the historical Jesus was stimulated by the prospect of viewing Jesus through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations,” reads The Five Gospels introduction (pg. 2).
Anybody who’s read my earlier entries knows that I’m all for people dumping their theological agendas so they can see what the biblical writers were really saying. But that’s a far cry from what the “Jesus Seminar” and others like them are doing, contrary to what they claim. They’re not “viewing Jesus (apart from) the perspective of theology” at all. They’re just viewing him through a different theological perspective than the traditional one. Their scholarly work is not undertaken to determine whether traditional Christian theology is true. As far as they’re concerned, it’s already a foregone conclusion that it can’t be true, but that’s not because they’re such courageous freethinkers and honest, objective students of truth and history. It’s because they’re already committed to another theological perspective.
And whatever anybody claims, everyone has a theological perspective of some kind. It might not be traditional western theism—it might be polytheism, pantheism, or some combination thereof, or it might be strong or weak agnosticism, or it might be the all-but-certain atheism of Richard Dawkins or the absolutely certain atheism of the late Christopher Hitchens. But everybody has some kind of theology; whether they’ve thought it out to define it or if it’s been passively absorbed through an array of culturally-ingrained assumptions, everybody has some kind of view on God.
The theology I’ve observed to be most common to liberal scholarship is a combination of vague deism and impersonal pantheism, which works itself out as a functional atheism: “We’re on our own down here, but ‘God’ is a nice idea to invoke for PMA toward social justice and self-improvement.” Many within the “Jesus” Seminar and other bastions of liberalism might speak of “God,” and even use Christian terminology so as to avoid scandalizing believers as they speak with scholarly authority on matters of Church history and Christian tradition, but the “God” in view is not the God of traditional Christianity or Judaism. For them, “God” is simply the natural order along with human conscience, and nothing more. Such a “God,” of course, does not and cannot intervene in human affairs, nor can it have any kind of revealed message to humanity, and so such a “God” precludes the possibility of supernatural prophecy and miracles and other elements comprising the biblical narrative.
So, what are they to make of the Bible, then, with its accounts of a God who speaks to humanity through prophets and messiahs? If their theology is true, the Bible can’t also be true… at least, not in the sense commonly understood.
They tacitly acknowledge the terms I’ve put forth regarding the apostles’ claim about the resurrection and its implications: if they said it happened, they had to have been either lying, mistaken, or telling the truth. Based on observations I’ll address in my next entry, they can’t have been deliberately lying and there’s no plausible scenario by which they could have been honestly mistaken, either. But, modern liberal theology precludes the possibility that they could have been telling the truth—a God who could or would literally raise someone bodily from the grave simply does not exist.
So, they have to invent a fourth option to fit their theology, which they do by reinterpreting the meaning and the origins of the Bible. In so doing, they create a new narrative about a progressive development of legendary tradition having been layered over early memories of the historical Jesus to create the “Christ of faith.” Unsurprisingly, the “Jesus of history” they “discover” beneath those layers of tradition then perfectly embodies the theology with which they began, and is then invoked to “disprove” and “correct” the “outdated” theology of traditional Christian faith.
The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus, then, was not a claim made by the apostles, they argue, but a legend, or a metaphor to express the meaning of Jesus and his teachings, which was never intended to be taken as a literal-factual account of history.
There are a great many compelling reasons to reject that narrative, though, and not just because it happens to conflict with our own theological agenda. Remember—if Christianity really is true, we should be able to check our theological preconceptions at the door and let it speak for itself to tell us that. So, we shouldn’t have to assume from the outset that the scriptures are divinely inspired to arrive at that conclusion. We should be able to evaluate them by the same standards we would any other writings and artifacts of human history, and then discover that they’re divinely inspired without rigging the game or stacking the deck to ensure that outcome.
So, on those terms, even if we were to accept the “conclusions” of modern liberal scholarship about the late date of composition and legendary character of the Gospels, there is still ample other evidence to establish the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the original message of the apostles, which I intend to address shortly.
Except, there’s no good reason to accept those conclusions.
Clearly, the “Christ of Faith/Developing Tradition”-narrative is based entirely on circular reasoning grounded in a dubious theological assumption. It’s nothing but a faith-based tautology wrapped in argumentum verbosium: it’s the nonbeliever equivalent of “the Bible’s true because the Bible tells me so,” but expressed through a labyrinth of rhetorical complexity with a veneer of academic credibility created by enough obscure scholarly jargon to intimidate outsiders into thinking they’re talking about something more than just their own preconceptions. They offer “the assured results of higher criticism” as conclusions to validate their theology, but their theology was the very premise with which they began. They never derived that theology from any objective, unbiased scholarship; it’s what drove their scholarship from the get-go. They’re doing the same thing they sneer at fundamentalists for doing when they hide behind their superstitious fideism.
The circularity of their reasoning should be obvious enough, but it’s widely accepted nonetheless because their biases are shared by so many. Naturally, even though they work
under the occupational title of “theologian,” they don’t think of their shared outlook as a distinctive “theology”; they just take it for granted that their outlook is plainly and unassailably “how the world is,” so they acknowledge no burden of evidence to establish their starting premise. They share a widespread sense that modern science and the Age of Enlightenment have rendered belief in the God of traditional Christianity obsolete. Even a great many regular churchgoers silently harbor this proclivity, and so they hide from science and biblical criticism alike for fear of being disabused of their cherished beliefs.
Contrary to what we’re told by the spirit of the age, though, if liberal biblical scholars do know with any certainty that such a God does not exist, then they somehow know something physicists, biologists, neurologists, astronomers, and scientists in every other field don’t know. It boggles the mind, really, how much they don’t actually know… at least, not on scientific grounds.
As my case in point, consider the Turing Test.
This will seem, at first, like an irrelevant tangent, but trust me for a few paragraphs—it’s relevant.
The test was created by British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing as a way to determine whether machines could think. He modeled the test after an old party game called the “Imitation Game.” In the game, a man and a woman each go into separate rooms, and players ask them questions, and the man and woman then type their answers and send them back to the players to read. The object is to try to tell them apart only by the answers they give. The players can’t see or hear the man and woman, and so they can’t distinguish them by voice, appearance, or handwriting, but have only the typewritten answers to go by.
The Turing Test is identical, except instead of a man and woman, it’s a human being and a computer, and the machine passes as “intelligent” if the judges cannot reliably tell the difference between the human and the machine. If it can carry on a conversation in a manner indistinguishable from a human being, it’s considered to be conscious, according to the test.
In the paper in which he proposed the test, Turing wanted to consider the question of whether machines could ever really think. Except, because the terms “thought” and “consciousness” lack precise, universally-accepted definitions, he had to change the
question from Do machines think? to Can machines do what we, as entities that think, can do?
Turing readily acknowledged the limitations of the test. He wrote: “I do not wish to give the impression that I think there is no mystery about consciousness. There is, for instance, something of a paradox connected with any attempt to localize it. But I do not think these mysteries necessarily need to be solved before we can answer the question with which we are concerned in this paper.”
Those mysteries don’t need to be solved in order to accept his test, he argued, because they’re not solved as a requisite of acceptance of consciousness in one another, because we have no way of knowing (in non-subjective, scientific terms) that any individual other than ourselves experiences emotions as we ourselves do. We all experience ourselves to be conscious, and because others have brains and bodies and senses like ours, and respond to stimuli as we do, we assume them to be conscious just as we are, but if we didn’t already have that internal experience of being conscious, we’d have no reason to distinguish other human beings from programmed, lifeless automata.
Turing published his paper more than 60 years ago, but advances in neuroscience and computer science in the decades since have done nothing to resolve this limitation. Ironically, the dilemma is expressed beautifully in the words of anti-religious author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. I hope you’ll forgive me the length of this quote, but it’s extremely worthwhile. In his 2005 book, The End of Faith, Harris wrote:
“While there is much to be said against a naïve conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.
“Inevitably, scientists treat consciousness as a mere attribute of certain large-brained animals. The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, declares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, interior dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case. Every paradigm that attempts to shed light upon the frontier between consciousness and unconsciousness, searching for the physical difference that makes the phenomenal one, relies upon subjective reports to signal that an experimental stimulus has been observed. The operational definition of consciousness, therefore, is reportability. But consciousness and reportability are not the same. Is a starfish conscious? No science that conflates consciousness with reportability will deliver an answer to this question. To look for consciousness in the world on the basis of its outward signs is all we can do. To define consciousness in terms of its outward signs, however, is a fallacy. Computers of the future, sufficiently advanced to pass the Turing test, will offer up a wealth of self-report—but will they be conscious? If we don’t already know, their eloquence on the matter will not decide the issue. Consciousness may be a far more rudimentary phenomenon than are living creatures and their brains. And there appears to be no way of ruling out such a thesis experimentally.
“And so, while we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we currently have no idea why it is ‘like something’ to be what we are. The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery—rivaled only by the mystery, famously articulated by the philosopher Schelling, that there should be anything at all in this universe rather than nothing. The problem is that our experience of brains, as objects in the world, leaves us perfectly insensible to the reality of consciousness, while our experience as brains, grants us knowledge of nothing else. Given this situation, it is reasonable to conclude that the domain of our subjectivity constitutes a proper (and essential) sphere of investigation into the nature of the universe: as some facts will be discovered only in consciousness, in first person terms, or not discovered at all. (pgs. 208,209; from chapter 7: Experiments in Consciousness; emphasized text is original to publication.)
In short, we don’t know in objective scientific terms what the hell “consciousness” even is. We only know about it because we are conscious. Even with ourselves—our brains—as a template, we can’t reverse-engineer consciousness, and we don’t even know how to identify it in scientific terms when we know where to look.
The only way to know if consciousness is present outside of our own experience as consciousness is if someone or something declares him/her/itself to be conscious, and then we can ultimately only take the supposed consciousness’s word for it. Hence the subjectivity inherent to the Turing Test.
And I want to reiterate that Sam Harris is an atheist. Not only is he an atheist, but he’s made a successful and celebrated career out his atheism alongside his study of neuroscience. Again, the volume quoted above is entitled The End of Faith, yet in the very book in which he calls for an end of faith, he makes a point to explain that the central, defining quality of our existence—our experience as consciousness and its phenomenological relationship to our brain is, in his very own words, “little more than an article of faith” itself.
I don’t bring this up just to point out the curious inconsistency in this brilliant atheist’s outlook. I mention it, along with the Turing test, because its object is the same as our attempt to determine, in scientific terms, whether God exists. Both have the same object of investigation: a consciousness that exists apart from the human brain. And they’re beset by the same problem: We don’t know what, exactly, we’re looking for.
The operational definition of consciousness is reportability, Harris explained. So, if God exists, the only possible way we could know about it is if God reported Himself to exist. That, of course, is precisely what Christianity claims Jesus to be: God’s Self-report.
Modern liberal scholarship rejects the notion that there could be any such Self-report from God, though, so Jesus’ identity as such is rejected as a foregone conclusion, and he is reinterpreted to be anything and everything but that Self-report, and then that reinterpretation is held out as a rebuttal to the traditional understanding of Jesus as God’s literal, supernatural revelation of Himself.
But how do they know that? If you ask them, they’ll point to the collective worldview shaped by 20th/21st-century science to justify their biases. But, according to an atheist neurologist, no less, scientists can’t find definitive proof of consciousness where consciousness is already known for a fact to exist. How, then, could science definitively answer the question of God’s existence? And how could they rule out the possibility of God’s existence with any confidence, especially when—on strictly objective, physical, scientific terms, we can’t even prove the existence of our own consciousness?
Even so, modern physicists and astronomers have a discovered a great deal about the universe that could be taken—not to conclusively prove, but to indicate a cosmic Designer. They don’t collectively conclude, of course, that such a Designer exists, yet the phrase “apparent design” shows up in much of their literature.
The popular view among many physicists, though, is that design is a quality we tend to project upon the universe as a consequence of our collective religious bias: the universe is a sort of Rorschach inkblot test, and because of our collective cultural bias, we tend to read
From where we stand (by the subjective appearance of the cosmic Rorschach test, that is), our existence is so astronomically unlikely because so many random, seemingly unrelated cosmic factors had to line up so perfectly and precariously—from the initial rate of expansion after the Big Bang to the relationship of the strong and weak nuclear forces to the size and composition of our moon, etc., ad infinitum—that it’s so statistically improbable as to be practically impossible for intelligent life to have come about.
“Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible. Different physicists put it in different ways, but the conclusion is always the same… Each (fundamental constant) is finely tuned in the sense that, if it were slightly different, the universe would be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life,” wrote Dawkins (pg. 141, 2).
Yet, here we are.
It’s an apparent miracle for life to exist at all—much more for intelligent life like us to exist. But the basic assumption—if not of science, but of most scientists, at least—is that “miracles” just don’t happen. The universe is a closed system and nothing from beyond it or above it can intervene, and if a reported phenomenon isn’t part of an observable, uniform, and predictable pattern, it absolutely cannot exist, and so if something can’t be demonstrated in verifiable and repeatable scientific terms, belief in it just isn’t valid (consciousness notwithstanding).
Yet, here we are—living, intelligent, and conscious.
Physicists have answered this monumental head-scratcher with an idea known as the anthropic principle. Simply put, it states that our accounting of the odds is just wrong. Our math tells us that the odds are long against us, but our math must be wrong, because long-shots don’t score goals, and here we are. The anthropic principle asserts that even though it looks like we live in the kind of universe in which we shouldn’t exist, since we’re obviously here, we must—despite all appearances to the contrary—live in the kind of universe in which intelligent life must inevitably emerge. So, there must be a better, more accurate way of understanding the universe—one that raises the odds of our existence from the astronomically unlikely to the statistically inevitable, and that without resorting to appeals to divine intervention. We shouldn’t be here, according to the cosmic pattern we can see, so there must be a larger pattern to consider which includes the pattern in view.
The anthropic principle in these basic, open-ended terms is known formally as the “weak anthropic principle” (WAP), but there are other forms of it that develop the concept more by hypothesizing positive models for the universe along those parameters. They are the strong anthropic principle, the participatory anthropic principle, and the final anthropic principle (this one’s really scary, but I can’t get into it just yet…).
I don’t want to get too much farther into this by explaining each one (and I’m doubtful that I’m qualified to do so anyway…), with the exception of the strong anthropic principle (SAP), because it will help to illuminate our main subject of discussion (which I promise to return to momentarily).
The SAP hypothesizes the existence of parallel universes alongside our own. It speculates that for every fork in the road of the space/time continuum, the universe sort of “bubbles” into another universe to accommodate both alternatives: if a particle is zipping this way and forces act upon it so that it can either zig this way or zag that way, the universe actually splits into two, like a cell in mitosis, to allow for both outcomes. So, there are universes in which the Nazis won and we’re all fair-skinned, blond-haired Hitler-loving German-speakers, there are universes in
which the dinosaurs survived and evolved intelligence and are now colonizing the Milky Way, and still vast numbers of other universes in which life never came about, and we just happen to live in one of the relative few in which it did.
The rational motivation behind all this far-reaching speculation of the SAP is to raise the odds of our existence by hypothesizing a potentially infinite multiverse in which everything that can possibly happen does inevitably happen, with the goal of rendering the fact of our existence to be unremarkable and scientifically and statistically predictable.
So, when you’re watching those documentary shows on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel and they show those physicists talking—completely seriously, matter-of-factly, and with a straight face about the possible existence of parallel universes… this is
how they reasoned that out. The “apparent design” of the universe and the resultant WAP and SAP are the logical path they followed to reach that hypothesis. God is unlikely to exist, many believe, but Evil Spock and space-faring dinosaurs are inevitabilities…
All this talk about physics and the multiverse and artificial intelligence might seem like a bit of a tangent in my treatment of New Testament scholarship, but this is the broader context in which those scholars do their work. I don’t know (but I’m doubtful) that Robert Funk and Marcus Borg and the rest are thinking specifically about alternate universes and all that they imply when they craft their revisionist histories of early Christianity, but they appear to take the general consensus of physicists and other scientists for granted (or the popular sense of what that consensus is) in their attempts to reinterpret the “outdated” concepts of traditional Christianity to conform it to the findings of the modern world.
They make a series of philosophical and theological assumptions on the seeming basis of modern science, except they presume a level of certainty about those assumptions that the scientists themselves could never honestly make. The popular zeitgeist takes it for granted that physicists probably know what they’re talking about and so they have good reason to speculate the existence of parallel universes and other dimensions of existence, yet the modern secularist is likely to laugh when conservative Christians speak of those other dimensions in more traditional terms like “heaven” or “hell.”
But, scientists don’t really know any better than we do what happened prior to, or what actually caused the Big Bang. They don’t know what lies beyond the boundaries of this universe, or if the term “boundary” even applies. They don’t know why there’s something rather than nothing, and though speculation abounds, they’ll readily admit that they don’t quite know how something as unlikely as life first arose in the universe. They don’t know what “consciousness” even really is, much less that they can exclude the possibility that a Supreme Consciousness could be responsible for us being here. In scientific terms, all of these are completely open questions, and nobody has any expertise by which to answer them with any decisive authority.
That isn’t to say, though, that because we have more gaps than knowledge, then God must necessarily fill those gaps. But considerations of ultimate origin and purpose and transcendent meaning are open questions outside the purview of science, which original, traditional Christianity purports to answer.
Popular misconception has it that modern biblical scholarship has weighed the proposed answer and found it lacking. But that isn’t true at all. Instead, they’ve side-stepped these questions entirely and offered a series of revisionist histories of early Christianity to conform “the historical Jesus” to the answers they assume from the start—answers that preclude the “Christ of faith” from the outset.
They reject the Bible as “primitive” and “outdated,” and so dismiss it as having any ultimate relevance to the question at hand, but that rejection arises more from snobbery than any actual scholarship, as their reasons for rejecting it don’t hold up to any scrutiny.
“When the Bible was written, people did not understand what we understand today,” retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong said to me a few years ago.
Spong is a prolific author and advocate of liberal or “progressive” theology, and he wrote one of the back-cover endorsements of the aforementioned The Five Gospels. I interviewed him several years ago for a two-part series of articles I wrote about the growing influence of “progressive” theology on local and national Christian practice and social issues (to be honest, they weren’t very well written, I have to admit—in the interest of staying “objective” I had to lay out all the “dots” of the issue at hand without necessarily connecting them for the reader, and the result was a somewhat verbose and convoluted product… if you can actually believe I’d be verbose and convoluted).
Spong elaborated on his remark by explaining that in biblical times, people believed in a three-tiered universe with God in heaven above, hell beneath, and a flat earth in the middle, which is why the New Testament speaks of Jesus “ascending into heaven.”
“They didn’t know what we know about the universe,” he said, adding, “As Carl Sagan once said to me: if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light, he hasn’t even escaped our galaxy yet.”
Also, Spong said they “didn’t know anything about germs or viruses, and they didn’t know anything about reproduction,” in reference to the virgin birth and to biblical writers’ attribution of disease to supernatural forces.
His dismissal of the Ascension, of course, comes simply from his rejection of the supernatural, not from his more modern and enlightened view of the universe. The biblical writers clearly understood that Jesus’ ascension had more to do with an ascension in status—with us along with him, than with a change in physical location.
Also, Paul evidently understood the ascension to be dimensional rather than spatial: his ascension was not to “the highest elevation in the universe,” but “to fill the whole universe.”
If we don’t automatically reject the possibility of God’s existence and intervention outright, though, is it that much of a stretch to think that He might communicate that ascension in terms of their existing understanding of the universe?
Once again, though—how was their understanding of a three-tiered universe so much different than present-day speculations about parallel universes and other dimensions? Why is it that we so confidently reject the one but accept the other?
And no—they didn’t know about cellular biology or about germ theory, but they knew enough about reproduction that Mary had some explaining to do when Joseph found out she was pregnant… in other words, ancient people weren’t any more inclined to accept claims of virgin births at face-value than we are.
Also, they didn’t know about microscopic germs, but the Philistines (and presumably other ancient people) evidently knew enough to associate rats with disease, even when they ultimately attributed supernatural causes to the plague that had broken out among them.
Further, if we take the Bible on its own terms, there is actually far, far more within it that could be understood to anticipate the findings of modern science than to contradict them (something I look forward to covering more completely in a future entry).
Now that the physics and philosophy are out of the way…
Apart from an anti-supernatural theological bias, liberal scholars have no other reason for believing in a late composition of the Gospels—save one.
In scholarly discussions about New Testament dating, the year 70 AD is the universal line of demarcation, because that was when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
Before we fully explore the significance of that date and event, though, a little background is in order. For those who might be unfamiliar with the general consensus of modern biblical higher criticism: scholars generally hold that Mark was the first of the three Synoptic Gospels written, and Matthew and Luke were composed later. This is partially because Mark is shorter and has what scholars deem to be a “less developed Christology” than the others, and so it’s believed to represent a more primitive tradition. Also, Matthew and Luke have material in common which is identical to the content of Mark, but they also have other material in common not found in Mark, which scholars believe came from at least one other source which has been lost to antiquity, referred to in academic circles as “Q,” so Mark and Q must have been written earlier than Matthew and Luke, they reason. This is known as the Two-Source hypothesis.
The earliest historical source to speak to the question of the Gospels’ order of composition, however, places Matthew first, followed in turn by Mark, Luke, and John. This was The History of the Church by Eusebius of Caesarea (mentioned also in my previous entry as Emperor Constantine’s biographer), which I highly recommend to every Christian who hasn’t read it. (The relevant portion is found in Book III, Chapter 24.)
Eusebius wrote in the early 4th century, though, so he wasn’t exactly a contemporary of the Gospel writers. However, even though his History is centuries removed from the time in question (and it isn’t without its other shortcomings), Eusebius had a wealth of information no longer available to us as his source material, which he quotes almost verbatim through much of his work. He had well known theological and political biases (he was known to favor the teachings of Arius, who was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, over the teachings of Athanasius, who was the principal champion of orthodox Trinitarian theology… so it isn’t quite true the “the victors write the history”). There wasn’t any conceivable agenda he could have served by purposefully misrepresenting the order of the Gospels, though, and no reason to believe he did anything but pass along what he himself read from earlier sources when he wrote his account of the order of their composition. So to my best knowledge, there is no compelling reason to dismiss him outright on that point, other than to accommodate present-day biblical scholarship.
My position doesn’t really depend on Matthew having been written first, though, and I don’t know of any compelling reason to reject the Two-source hypothesis. So, for the sake of argument, I’m happy to concede to conventional scholarly wisdom on this point (although the Two-Source hypothesis isn’t without its critics and competing hypotheses within the world of biblical scholarship).
Along with the order of priority set forth in the Two-Source hypothesis, scholars also agree that the book of Acts was written after the three Synoptics and by the same author as Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel.
To summarize: the general consensus is that Mark and Q came first, then Matthew and Luke, and then Acts.
They say the earliest Mark could have been written was sometime after the year 70, since all three Gospels report that Jesus foretold the destruction of the temple: “As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ Jesus replied, ‘Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”
Because that’s precisely what actually happened at the hands of the Romans in the year 70, and because it should be beyond obvious that supernatural predictive prophecy just doesn’t happen(so they reason), then this plainly must have been written after the fact.
“Doesn’t the reasoning behind that dating depend on knowing already that Jesus wasn’t a prophet, and so could not have foreseen the future?” I asked Spong in the aforementioned interview.
“Of course,” he answered.
Instead of an authentic, supernatural, prophetic prediction by the Son of God forty years earlier, it was merely a fabricated post-diction projected back into the mouth of Rabbi Jesus to bolster his legend as a prophet, according to the “assured results of higher criticism.”
And there you have it. That, coupled with their assumptions of a purely man-made Christianity, is the sole piece of evidence they have for dating the Synoptics after the year 70. Mark must have been written in or after the year 70, and then Matthew and Luke, since they were dependent on Mark for their content, and finally, the book of Acts was written still later after that. They generally conclude, therefore, that the three Synoptics and Acts were completed sometime between the early to mid-70s and the end of the 1st century.
Except, there are a couple of pretty serious problems with that line of reasoning.
The first is the ending of the book of Acts. The final passage depicts the apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome, which would have been sometime in the early 60s (probably in the year 60, but no later than 62).
In the interview for the aforementioned article, I asked Spong: If the three Synoptics were written after the year 70, and Acts was written even later as a sequel to the last of the Synoptics, then why did Acts conclude with an event that occurred, at the absolute latest, in the year 62 AD? Why would the author of Acts neglect to mention such pivotal moments in Christian history as the martyrdom of both Paul and Peter in Rome during Emperor Nero’s vicious persecution? Why wouldn’t he mention the Neronian persecution at all, nor the Great Fire of Rome which preceded it, for which Christians were blamed? Why wouldn’t he mention the earth-shattering Jewish Revolt against the Romans? Lastly, why wouldn’t he also mention the fate of the Church in Jerusalem and the destruction of the city and the temple? When so much happened in those eight-to-ten years between Paul’s imprisonment and the year 70, why would he simply end it with Paul under house arrest in Rome?
Isn’t the most logical explanation that these events simply had not yet happened at the time Acts was completed and circulated?
“I don’t think that’s a very strong argument. Only a fundamentalist would argue for an early dating of Acts,” Spong answered. He went on to explain that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was a fitting ending because his goal of bringing the gospel to Rome was the main theme of Acts.
Of course, anyone who’s ever read the book of Acts can make up their own mind about how much weight to give Spong’s explanation, but I don’t think it holds any water for people who have, unless they’re just terrified of being called “fundamentalists.” Yes—Paul getting to Rome was certainly a theme of Acts… but not until 23 chapters into the 28-chapter narrative: it reports Paul’s vision during his imprisonment in Jerusalem in which Jesus appeared and told him his incarceration would eventually take him to the imperial capital. In the preceding material comprising the first 22 chapters of Acts—more than 80 percent of the content of the book—there isn’t even a single mention of any specific intention by Paul to go to Rome. For the majority of the time covered in Acts, getting to Rome was no more significant to Paul’s mission than preaching in Ephesus, Athens, Antioch, or any other major city.
And there were other themes in Acts that overshadowed Paul’s trip to Rome by leaps and bounds—those being martyrdom and persecution, the fulfillment of prophecy, tensions between Christians and Jews, among others—not least of which was the newly-accomplished obsolescence of the temple, of which its destruction in the year 70 could certainly be taken as divine confirmation (and has been in various corners of Christian tradition). The events that unfolded between the last event mentioned in Acts and the year 70 were of inestimable importance in consideration of those central themes, yet there is no mention of them whatsoever in Acts or in the New Testament record as a whole.
The most logical explanation is that the writer of Acts just didn’t know about them, and the only way he could have been ignorant of events of such monumental importance to his subject matter was that they hadn’t yet occurred. That being the case, Acts must have been written at least six years prior to the year 70, and Luke, Matthew, and Mark, therefore, even earlier.
And this has profound implications for the discussion at hand. The first and most obvious being that what the non-believing academics themselves acknowledge would be a definite example of a supernatural prophecy by Jesus if it was uttered prior to 70 AD, was actually uttered prior to 70 AD.
And this brings us to the second problem in dating the three Synoptics on the basis of that remark as a supposed “post-diction.” The problem is the context in which the prophecy was reportedly spoken. After Jesus’ remark that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” the disciples asked, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your advent and of the end of the age?” Jesus then commenced to teach about the End of the Age and the Second Coming.
While the temple and the city of Jerusalem have certainly been destroyed since then, Jesus has, however, not yet returned to the earth in glory. We’re obviously still waiting. And that would have been just as obvious after the year 70 when the temple and the city were destroyed. Yet, the writers of the three Synoptics lumped the predicted destruction of Jerusalem together with the End of the Age and the Second Coming—they wrote about them as if they were one and the same event. Christians have been perplexed by this riddle for the past two-thousand years.
Now I’m not saying, necessarily, that what was written was a mistake or that Jesus had it wrong himself, or even that the disciples heard or remembered or recorded his words incorrectly. There are a number of possibilities for resolving this apparent dilemma, and I’m not suggesting such a resolution to it here, as it is somewhat beyond the scope of the discussion at hand. My only point is this—it is, in fact, a dilemma, and one Christians have been scratching their heads about and taking heat from skeptics over for millennia.
That being the case, if the prediction was—as non-believing academics claim—written after the fact as a man-made “prophecy,” why would it have been written in such a way to create this problem? If the temple and the city were already in ruins when the Gospels were written, why would the writers so obviously equate the Fall of Jerusalem to the Second Coming and the End of the Age, if those longed-for events so obviously hadn’t happened alongside the destruction? Or why wouldn’t they at least have proposed in the text some explanation for why the one happened but not the other? If the academics are correct and the prophecy of the temple’s destruction was written after it had already happened, then the people who put it into the mouth of Jesus as a prediction also set up the expectation that its destruction would closely accompany his Glorious Return, when they would have known full well that that wasn’t the case, since it obviously didn’t happen that way.
It’s absurd to think the Gospel writers would deliberately invent failed prophecies in their efforts to cast Jesus as the greatest of prophets, so the most logical explanation is that, again—the Synoptic Gospels were, in fact, written prior to the year 70.
While this might carry implications unwelcome to many Christians about the nature of scripture and the true meaning of “divine inspiration,” it pretty solidly puts the composition of the Gospels well within the lifetimes of the apostles and others who personally witnessed the ministry, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If the Synoptic Gospels and most of the rest of the New Testament were written within the lifetimes of the original disciples, then their essential historical reliability is assured. Not only were many of the original followers of Jesus still alive, but most of the rest of the people who knew him—friends, family, followers and admirers, as well as enemies—were also still alive to set the record straight if the official “Church-version” of Jesus and his persecutors was somehow misrepresentative.
Of course, an early date of composition for the Gospels profoundly undermines the ideas of modern liberal scholarship about a gradually-developed tradition about Jesus as the Messiah. Legends and folklore take much longer to develop than authentic memories, and there is too short a gap between the life of Jesus and the compositions of the three Synoptic Gospels for them to have been compilations of legends.
Again, as it relates to my central argument, the idea among liberal scholars is that the story of the resurrection was a gradually-layered tradition of legendary accretions, with elements of it having been a physical, bodily, literal, and factual resurrection having been added over time.
Even apart from the early composition of the synoptic Gospels, though, there is plenty of other evidence to destroy that argument.
For instance, Paul’s letters contain multiple explicit references to the resurrection, and the consensus among most, if not all biblical scholars—even some of the more liberal specimens, is that he wrote most of them in the 50s.
Many of them, even, contain what most scholars regard to be early Christian hymns and creedal statements about the resurrection:
“Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that the Messiah died for our sins, according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…” Paul wrote sometime in the early to mid-50s.
When he writes that this was something he “received,” it suggests a tradition that had already been well-established about the resurrection, which included the elements of events transpiring “…according to the scriptures,” as well as a formulaic ordering of appearances to the apostles.
He wrote to the Philippians, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” As support for his instruction, he then quoted the following:
“Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be exploited
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to death—
Even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
And gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.”
The fact that these were well established, formulaic traditions as early as the 50s clearly indicates that “Jesus has risen from the dead” was the message proclaimed from early on.
However, Spong and other liberal theologians point out that the previous passage contains no specific mention of Jesus having been physically raised from death—only that “God exalted him.”
Liberal theologians like him also highlight another early hymn quoted by Paul to his disciple Timothy:
“He appeared in a body,
Was vindicated by the Spirit,
Was seen by angels,
Was preached among the nations,
Was believed on in the world,
Was taken up in glory.”
Christians traditionally interpret this to speak of a literal, bodily resurrection, but liberal theologians point out that it makes no explicit mention of a physical body being “taken up in glory”—only that Christ was “vindicated by the Spirit.”
Spong argues that Paul and the original disciples regarded Jesus to be an exalted “Spirit person” at this stage of theological development, and that they believed and taught that he had been raised only in spirit, directly from the grave to heaven, with no 40-day period in which he appeared in physical form to his disciples. (He makes the former claim in chapter 7 of his Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and the latter in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?. Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the “Jesus Seminar,” makes the same basic arguments in his Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, although he’s much more coy and soft-spoken about it than Spong is. I’m sure there are a number of others who make the same arguments in similar books, but these are some of the samples I’ve read.)
Spong frequently quotes a couple of Paul’s other remarks to corroborate his position that the resurrection of Jesus was regarded as a spiritual (i.e., “metaphorical”) occurrence, not a literal or physical event:
“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” the apostle wrote, which Spong frequently quotes.
Also, “Though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we do so no longer.”
It should be plain to anyone who’s read these verses in context, though, that—deliberately or otherwise, Spong is obviously perverting Paul’s clearly intended meaning.
The apostle’s first remark came after a discussion of what kind of body we’d have at the resurrection. True, he spoke of it as a “spiritual body,” but he was explicit that the spiritual body would correspond with, include, and continue the physical body—the body that was buried is also the body that was raised, albeit changed, improved, immortalized. Clearly, Paul didn’t mean that no flesh and blood could inherit the kingdom of God, but that mere flesh and blood could not.
And it took some audacity for Spong to construe the second quote way he did, to mean that Paul regarded Jesus “as a spirit person” divorced from his flesh. Spong had to have tried to misunderstand the passage. As if it’s not obvious already, Paul didn’t mean that he no longer saw Christ as a flesh and blood person, but that he no longer regarded Christ by the superficial and selfish standards of the flesh. He didn’t regard him by worldly standards, he plainly wrote.
Regarding the hymn quoted to the Philippians—if, as Spong claims, it was meant to convey the resurrection as a merely spiritual event, Paul certainly didn’t understand it that way, and he clearly didn’t expect the Christians in Philippi to interpret it that way, either. Later in the same epistle, Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead… The Lord Jesus Christ…by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
He didn’t write that Jesus would “remove us from our lowly bodies” or even “replace our lowly bodies,” but that these very bodies, made of flesh and blood and physical matter, will be transformed into the new body.
There’s nothing in 1 Timothy that explicitly refutes Spong and other liberal theologians’ characterization of the creedal formula referenced in the letter, but there’s plenty in Paul’s other writings to overturn their notion of a non-literal, non-bodily tradition about the resurrection.
He wrote in his first epistle to the Thessalonians:
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Paul didn’t offer comfort by assuring them that their loved ones’ “spirit bodies” had already ascended into heaven to be with the Lord’s “spirit body.” No, he spoke of them still being here, on earth—in the earth, because that which will be raised is still buried until the Lord comes back. When he returns, that which is buried will be raised—which is their physical body, because it was the physical body of Jesus in view when Paul spoke of him having died and risen again.
Further, Spong and others in his camp completely ignore perhaps the greatest blow to their argument, which is that a general resurrection from the dead was already a deeply established tenet of Jewish tradition, having been the subject of centuries’ old prophecy long before the ministry of Jesus, and it was clearly a literal, physical, and bodily resurrection in view: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt,” read a well-known prophecy.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, My people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put My Spirit in you and you will live…”
If Paul and the other apostles had intended anything other than the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jewish expectation when they spoke of the Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, they would have made that explicit by distinguishing themselves and their teachings from the accepted Jewish understanding of the concept of resurrection. Instead, Paul invoked that very understanding as the essential point of his teaching, and there isn’t a shred of evidence that the other apostles spoke of the resurrection of Jesus in any terms other than those already established in Jewish tradition. In fact, their essential message was that the resurrection of Jesus was the validation of that tradition.
So, the message about the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus was a well-established tradition by the time Paul wrote his letters, beginning in the early 50s, which means that’s what constituted “Christianity” from the beginning. That’s what had been claimed from the first moments of the movement in Jesus’ name, and everything else we know as “Christianity” revolves around that central proclamation. In fact, the resurrection is at the center of everything Paul and the other apostles wrote in all of their letters, because their message and teachings would have had no meaning apart from it. It is impossible that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead could have been a later “addition” to the gospel, because there would have been no “gospel” to which to attach it. That is the gospel.
Before I summarize this and move on, there’s one last point I want to make…
Earlier, I mentioned another component of the narrative offered by liberal scholars about the evolution of the “Jesus of history” into the “Christ of faith,” which is the claim that specific elements were later projected onto his life for the purpose of making it appear that he fulfilled the prophecies made about the Messiah when he really didn’t.
This isn’t really necessary to establish my central premise, because I’m confident that I’ve done that by now, but it’s still useful in showing how flimsy and ridiculous their argument really is.
To clarify, their claim is that elements like the virgin birth, his betrayal for thirty pieces of silver, his birth in Bethlehem and his family taking refuge in Egypt, along with other odds and ends found in the Gospels—these didn’t actually happen, they say, but were legendary developments by later generations, inserted into the gospel narratives for the purpose of portraying Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Of course, it’s obvious by now why their biases would motivate that argument, but I’m not sure why they would strain out those gnats and still swallow the camel represented by the more central, undisputed elements of his life, which couldn’t have been legendary developments, yet fulfill the specific predictions by the prophets about the Messiah.
The prophets predicted that the Messiah’s given name would be Y’shua, or Joshua as we render it in English, or Jesus, as the anglicized form of the Greek version of the name, Iesous—all meaning “Yahweh is Savior.”
It was also written that the Servant of the Lord would be rejected and despised by the nation of Israel, pierced and punished for their sins, slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb, as a guilt offering, and “after the suffering of his soul” would “see the light of life and be satisfied.”
Another prophecy similarly depicts a figure forsaken by God, yet mocked and ridiculed for his devotion to God, surrounded by violent men who pierce his hands and feet as he’s abused and publicly humiliated. This was written about five centuries before crucifixion was seen in the world as an institutionalized form of execution, and even longer before the Romans brought it to Judea, yet the passage in question describes its procedure in graphic detail, then bursts into exuberant praise for God for then delivering the figure subjected to its horror.
Accordingly, another prophecy declares that God would not abandon His Holy One to the grave, nor let him see decay.
It was foretold that the Jews would one day look upon God—“the One they have pierced,” and that they would “mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Lastly, the prophet said the Chosen One would be God’s instrument, not just for restoring the people of Israel to Himself, but also for giving “light to the Gentiles” and making the God of Israel known and worshipped among all the nations of the world.
So, whatever we believe about modern biblical higher criticism or the dates of composition of the Gospels and the evolution of early Christian tradition, the indisputable fact is that centuries earlier, the prophets foretold a Messiah whose name would be Y’shua, or Iesous, who would be rejected by the nation, condemned and crucified in the year 30 AD in atonement for their sins, and for the sins of the world. God would then raise him from the dead, the prophets said, and then make him the instrument through whom He revealed Himself to the rest of the world beyond Israel. Finally, the prophet added, the temple would be destroyed again after these events.
I want to emphasize that this description of the Messiah is not dependent upon or even drawn from the New Testament or from Christian tradition at all. This description comes from a plain reading of literature that was written and institutionalized as holy writ, and even translated into Greek and circulated throughout the ancient world, several generations before Rome became an empire.
It is also a matter of indisputable fact that the original Jewish founders of the movement that came to be known as “Christianity” began traveling throughout the Roman Empire in the mid 30s, proclaiming that a man fitting that precise description had been raised by God from the dead, and that they had all personally encountered him on several occasions, and it is for that reason alone that the God worshiped by the Jews and their prophets is now worshiped by the majority of the people of the world.
That fact flies in the face of much of what we take for granted today, so many try to downplay it, bury it, ignore it, revise and reinterpret and deny it, but the fact remains, undiminished and unchanged.
Whatever else we believe about the universe and ourselves, Christianity exists today because a group of apparently reasonable and ordinary men suddenly decided to devote the rest of their lives to proclaiming their experience that “Jesus has risen from the dead.”
With that fact before us, again—one, and only one, of these three conclusions must absolutely necessarily follow from that:
Were they lying?
Were they mistaken?
Or, were they telling the truth?