Can you tell us a bit about your own personal experience in coming to embrace the historical reliability of the gospels? Was there a period of time in your life when you seriously doubted the historical integrity of the gospel accounts?
I was raised in a fairly liberal branch of the old Lutheran Church in America, before the merger that created today’s ELCA. I vividly remember being very puzzled in confirmation class when I was taught/shown how the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper contradicted each other as an illustration of how our doctrine of Scripture should focus on the main points and basic thoughts of the text but allow for contradictions in the details. Even in junior high, it seemed to me that there were plausible ways of combining the texts into a harmonious whole and seeing each as a partial excerpt of a larger narrative, but our pastor didn’t countenance that option.
In college, at an LCA school, all five of our religion department professors were ordained Lutheran ministers but not one of them believed that Jesus said or did more than a significant minority of the things attributed to him in the canonical gospels. Our Campus Crusade for Christ director on campus, however, pointed us to a lot of good literature that presented credible scholarly alternatives to the skeptical views on numerous subjects that the religion department promoted. Our college library also included quite a large volume of more conservative religious scholarship from a slightly older era because, until the 1960s it had housed a seminary as well as an undergraduate college, and the real move toward liberalism didn’t hit the Lutherans until the 1960s, just one decade before I was in college. So I realized that things weren’t nearly as cut and dried as I was being taught in class.
I also discovered that a disproportionate number of the more evangelical works of the 1970s, at least among those written in America, came from profs at Trinity in Deerfield, which is one of the main reasons I went there for seminary. That was a wonderful time as I encountered so many more credible responses to skeptical approaches that I had been interacting with in junior high, senior high, and college. And credible evangelical scholarship has only blossomed in pretty amazing quantities ever since.
One can easily find blogs and websites claiming that Jesus never existed. Even if we didn’t have the New Testament, what would we know about Jesus from non-Christian sources?
The best source here for a book-length answer is Robert van Voorst’s Jesus outside the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000). Here is my composite summary:
Jesus was a first-third of the first-century Jew, who lived in Israel, was born out of wedlock, whose ministry intersected with that of John the Baptist, who became a popular teacher and wonder-worker, who gathered particularly close disciples to himself, five of whom are named (though some of the names are a bit garbled), who consistently taught perspectives on the Law that ran afoul of the religious authorities’ interpretations, who was believed to be the Messiah, who was eventually crucified under Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator in Judea (which enables us to narrow the date for that event to somewhere between A.D. 26 and 36), and who was allegedly seen by many of his followers as bodily resurrected from the dead. Instead of dying out, the movement of his followers continued to grow with each passing decade and within a short period of time people were singing hymns to him as if he were a god.What are some of the major categories of alleged gospel contradictions?
Theological distinctives, numerical discrepancies, similar events that may actually reflect separate episodes or teachings in his life, partial excerptings from longer events, approximations that would not have been seen as inaccurate by the standards of the day, occasional tensions with extra-biblical data, and the like.
Could you give us a couple of examples of alleged contradictions that have plausible solutions?
Did the centurion come to Jesus right off the bat and ask him for his servant to be healed (as in Matthew 8) or did he first send some Jewish elders as an embassy to ask on his behalf (as in Luke 7)? Probably, the latter, since to act on behalf of another person could have been reported as acting oneself. We have the same convention when the media report that “the President today announced. . .” when in fact it was his press secretary.
Did the Sanhedrin condemn Jesus to be sent on to Pilate for execution during a nighttime trial (as in Luke) or first thing after dawn in the morning (as in Matthew and Mark). Probably both. It was illegal to come to a capital verdict at night, but in the flurry of events and eagerness of the authorities to do away with Jesus, it is hard to imagine them not beginning to interrogate him during the night and come to provisional conclusions. But to create the aura of legality, a quick rubber-stamp formal hearing involving the legal essentials, first thing in the morning, is equally likely.
Let me ask about one in particular, because it has been highlighted by Bart Ehrman as being decisive in his journey from evangelical to agnostic. It began, he says, after writing a graduate paper attempting to harmonize the fact that Mark 2:26 has Jesus saying that David entered the temple to eat the bread of the Presence in the days of Abiathar the high priest—but in point of fact, 1 Samuel 21 clearly says that Ahimelech was the high priest during this episode. How would you respond? Was Jesus mistaken?
The Greek here is very unusual. The construction is a two word prepositional phrase, epi Abiathar, which literally means “upon Abiathar.” Obviously, some kind of idiom is being used. One possibility is “in the days of A.” But in Mark 12:26, Mark uses the same construction, epi tou batou (literally, “upon the bush”) where most translations render it something like “in the account of the bush” or “in the passage about the bush”. This makes very good sense of Mark 2:26 as well. Jesus could very well have been saying, “in the account/passage about Abiathar.”
The next question, then, is what Jews in Jesus’ day would have considered an “account” or “passage.” We tend to think today in terms of fairly small chunks of text, but ancient Jews read all of the Torah annually straight through in weekly synagogue readings and the rest of the Old Testament in a triennial cycle of readings. To do so required multiple chapters to be read during worship each week. Each of these multiple-chapter accounts had names to help identify them, sometimes as short as one word. Often the names were the names of a key character in the text. Unfortunately no list of all the names used for the passages has survived. The only ones we know of are those that are mentioned sporadically in the rabbinic literature in the context of some other kind of discussion. But it is hardly implausible to imagine that Abiathar might have been the name given to a multiple-chapter segment of 1 Samuel that included chapter 21 and the details about Ahimelech, since Abiathar appears in the very next chapter of 1 Samuel and became the better remembered of the two figures in Jewish history. I might add that John Wenham set all of this out in a brief article in the Journal of Theological Studies way back in 1950.
Ehrman, in his introduction to Misquoting Jesus, tells the story of writing a paper at Princeton in which he defended a resolution to this problem, though he doesn’t tell us what it was. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was something along these lines, since the article would already have been well known when he was a student. Ehrman goes on to describe how it was his professor’s response (asking him why he did not just say that Mark made a mistake) that revolutionized his attitude toward Scripture. And it was all down hill for him from there.
There are a lot of things I would like to say in response to Ehrman’s autobiographical reflections. But I’ll limit myself here to saying two things. First, if one was prepared to abandon all pretense of Christian faith on the basis of one apparent error in Scripture, one’s faith must not have amounted to much in the first place. I have no problem with accepting as Christian the approach that allows for minor historical mistakes in the Bible but still acknowledges the main story line. That’s not the approach that I take, but I know far too many solid believers who do opt for such an approach to dismiss it as not an option for a genuine Christian. But second, I wonder what else made Ehrman reject his original paper and/or an approach like Wenham’s. I have yet to hear anyone give me a good reason why it is improbable.
Are there certain mistaken hermeneutical presuppositions made by conservative evangelicals that play into the hands of liberal critics?
Absolutely. And one of them follows directly from the last part of my answer to your last question. The approach, famously supported back in 1976 by Harold Lindsell in his Battle for the Bible (Zondervan), that it is an all-or-nothing approach to Scripture that we must hold, is both profoundly mistaken and deeply dangerous. No historian worth his or her salt functions that way. I personally believe that if inerrancy means “without error according to what most people in a given culture would have called an error” then the biblical books are inerrant in view of the standards of the cultures in which they were written. But, despite inerrancy being the touchstone of the largely American organization called the Evangelical Theological Society, there are countless evangelicals in the States and especially in other parts of the world who hold that the Scriptures are inspired and authoritative, even if not inerrant, and they are not sliding down any slippery slope of any kind. I can’t help but wonder if inerrantist evangelicals making inerrancy the watershed for so much has not, unintentionally, contributed to pilgrimages like Ehrman’s. Once someone finds one apparent mistake or contradiction that they cannot resolve, then they believe the Lindsells of the world and figure they have to chuck it all. What a tragedy!
The first edition of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels was published over 20 years ago, and I know that it has been instrumental for many in recovering a basic belief in the reliability of the gospel accounts. The following question might be difficult to answer, but could you give any generalizations about the ways in which perceptions have changed—positively and negatively—in the last 20 years, in the academy, in the pew, and in the marketplace of ideas?
I am very encouraged by most of the developments of the last twenty years. Scholars of all stripes far more often engage evangelical scholarship today than they did two decades ago. Whether or not they engage my book directly, they certainly engage many of the writings of the scholars I rely on most heavily. The so-called third quest of the historical Jesus, which really began in earnest in mid-1980s, continues unabated and is strikingly more optimistic about what we can recover from the canonical texts about the historical Jesus. It is a pity that what has dominated the average American’s attention during this period includes primarily the Jesus Seminar (during the 1990s) which was a largely non-representative and idiosyncratic slice of the scholarly world and now increasingly (during this decade) whatever makes it to the Internet rather than whatever represents the best scholarship even if available only in hard copy form.
The democratization of information that the Internet has created is a very mixed blessing. Without the peer-review process that academic publishers require, anybody can say anything, however, outrageously skewed or downright false, and far too many people read Internet publications far too gullibly. Indeed, if I hadn’t written the peer-reviewed works that I have that people can consult, they shouldn’t necessarily be believing me on this blog! Who knows whether I’d be telling the truth or not?
With regard to the marketplace of ideas, what can evangelicals be doing better to engage the culture on these issues? Evangelical scholars have done an outstanding job of producing top-notch books that defend truth. But what role, if any, do you see new media playing in the next phase of the defense of the faith?
Boy you’ve arranged these questions well. Each one seems to follow from the previous one! In my opinion, the answer has to be both-and. We must continue to publish peer-reviewed works, even if for awhile that still means they will not be Internet accessible. But we must co-operate with each other, even as you and I, Justin, are doing on this blogposting, so that people who ill-advisedly choose not to read anything that can’t be accessed with a split-second Internet connection will find solid scholarship disseminated, and popularized, in the media they are employing. An excellent, new example of this, to which I am contributing, is the brainchild of Darrell Bock at Dallas Seminary and is called Prime Time Jesus. It can be accessed at http://blog.bible.org/primetimeJesus/. A dozen North American evangelical historical Jesus scholars take turns posting blogs related to new developments in research and responding to new stories and media events that are making news. No one is overworked, we can all interact with each other, no one can pontificate idiosyncratically without some checks and balances, and anyone in the world can have quick access to the fruits of the best scholarship on this continent germane to the issues at hand.
Finally, what books are you currently working on?
Although my Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey been in print for only eleven, rather than twenty, years, Broadman & Holman have asked me to do an updated version, which will, Lord willing, come out some time in 2009. Because the book, to my delight (and somewhat to my astonishment), has been widely adopted all around the world as a textbook, it is more crucial to keep it up-to-date. It won’t be revised nearly as much as Historical Reliability was, but all the literature and footnotes will be made much more current, small additional sections are being added, and the text is being reworded slightly in places where I realize that very recent scholarship requires it.
Thank you for your time, and for your many years of studying and writing in order to serve the church and to be a faithful witness.
You’re very welcome. Thank you for the invitation to participate in this blog.