Lecture 09: Positive Reasons of Believing the Gospels are Reliable
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Question 7: How did the Gospel Writers Compile Their Writings
Okay, Luke gave his purposes for writing in Luke 1:1-4. So, for my first six points, in many ways they were responding to questions being asked. And so we ask, is the text reliable? Do we know who wrote it? Can we date it? Do we have any reason to think they wanted to preserve accurate history? Did they have the ability to do so? Does the end result in the text suggest that they were trying to do so? Those are the first six points which were in response to questions people have asked me. Now I want to move to more positive evidence, not just replying to critics. We could pose the question: are their good positive reasons to think that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are reliable? Matthew and Mark don’t give us an explicit purpose statement. John does in chapter 20:30-31. He says, ‘now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ But that doesn’t answer the question of how a Gospel writer went about producing his book. Luke is the writer who does that for us in a fair amount of detail. ‘Many’, he starts out, ‘many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. With this in mind since I, myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I, too, decided to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, that you may have a certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’
He is saying that he was aware that there were already other written accounts in existence, of portions of Jesus’ life and ministry. Mark is probably one of them. If something like ‘Q’ existed, it is probably another. As ancient histories were written, they often evolved from smaller sources that grouped together information about a certain phrase of someone’s life and ministry or a series of teachings or in the case of Christ, a series of his miracles. There could have been other shorter sources that Luke was aware of. There could have been the beginnings of distortions of what is now called the apocryphal or Gnostic Gospels. It is hard to know, but there are at least several. Many don’t have to mean thousands, but it usually means more than three written sources and that has stimulated Luke to produce one as well. He also acknowledges that he is basing what he says on eyewitness information, because he is a gentile and we have no reason to suspect that he was even in Israel during Jesus’ earthly life. He didn’t see Jesus directly, so he is basing what he says on eyewitness information, but also from those who were servants of the Word or ministers of the Word. This is probably not just local pastors and Christian leaders but talking about those who were authorized, commissioned, acknowledged by local Christian communities as people who had learned the Gospel tradition, who were reliable and who had good memories and who could articulate well and therefore were faithful transmitters of the tradition.
That also inspired confidence and then it is clear that Luke is putting his literary and authoritative stamp on his product, ‘to write an orderly account.’ The New American Standard says to write in ‘chronological’ order but that is over translating. A word that means just some kind of order, and interestingly Luke in chapter 9-18 is made up of the longest part of any of the Gospel texts where there are almost no references to where and when Jesus is doing all the different things that it says he does and teaches. But it looks very much like Luke has grouped things together according to common themes and topics. So it may not always be in chronological order; in fact it can’t be when it is in a different order than one of the other Gospels. But it is in an order that made sense to Luke, so that Theophilus and also early church tradition might know with greater assurance the certainty of the things he has been taught. The other thing that is fascinating about that opening paragraph of Luke is that in condensed form, it is extremely similar to much longer opening paragraphs in the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus and in the pre-Christian Greek historian Herodotus, Thucydies, and Polybius and those four men are often, not always, but often designated as among the very most reliable ancient historians of what they narrated in the ancient Mediterranean World. Luke, in other words, is designating and indicating to his readers that he thinks that he is writing sober history, with a theological purpose, absolutely. And in what is hopefully a pleasing and effective literary style. Artistry and theology don’t have to work against history, they can but they don’t have to. The key is, not to impose on Luke any of the Biblical writer’s modern standards of historical writings. What do you mean? You tell stories about his birth, one incident at age twelve and then jump to when he is thirty. What kind of biographer are you? An ancient one! That is what kind he is. This idea that every detail and stage and phrase of a person’s life, no matter how famous they became, is a very modern notion; it only goes back about two hundred years. You don’t know much about the childhood of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or Augustus Caesar or anyone else from the ancient world. You focused on the parts that were most significant from which you could learn something. The idea of history being told just for the sake of recording events would have made no sense at all to people in antiquity. Record something that people can learn from, otherwise don’t waste your time, life is short and it was a lot shorter back then. I sometime wonder what Luke would think of some of our blogs or some of our facebook posts, detailed descriptions of what we ate for a meal and how successful our child’s toilet training was that day.
Question 8: Hard saying of Jesus
Let’s turn to the difficult sayings of Jesus. One of these difficult saying is Luke 14:26 where Jesus was on the road with a large crowd gathered about; he began to teach them and says ‘if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’ Really! Hate? Well, in Hebrew and in Greek, hate, and love sometimes didn’t refer to emotions at all, but what you didn’t choose verses what you chose. It is what you didn’t prefer in regards to verses that you preferred. There is a somewhat similar saying in Matthew by Jesus in a different context in regards to when he was sending out the twelve. But in Matthew 10:37, we read, ‘but if anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ That is probably a good commentary on what Jesus meant in Luke 14:26 and that is challenging enough. But why did Luke write it, the one gentile writer of all the writers in such a potentially misleading form, unless there were some constraints on what he and his community could or could not say or wording it a particular way. It is so awkward that you would have expected that if the Gospel writers had major freedom to leave things out or drastically reword it, that Luke would have done so.
There is a different kind of example from Jesus’ sermon on the Mound of Olives about the destruction of the temple and the coming of the end in Mark 13:32. It is parallel in Matthew and in verse 32 after describing all of these events, he says that about that day or house no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father. Not even Jesus in the limitations that he voluntary adopted in the incarnation, but only the Father. When the Gospels were being written, people were more and more exalting Christ. Why include a statement that may it sound like Jesus was ignorant in something as important as his own return. We can theologically explain this, it doesn’t have to be a problem, but it is awkward. People who predict the end of the world obviously never read this verse. There must be some restraints on the Gospel writers for them to leave in such awkward and potentially misleading hard sayings.
Question 9: What Doesn’t Appear in the Gospels that You Would Expect?
But the 9th point is sort of the flip side of what doesn’t appear in the Gospels that you might expect to appear. This is what some have caledl the missing sayings. One such topic has to do with circumcision. I suspect there are few if any adult men in this room who have had the major dilemma that many Greek and Roman men in the 1st century had, starting to be attracted to this Jewish faith, maybe then be attracted to a Messianic form of Judaism, aka, early Christianity and learning of the debate within those circles and the question of whether you have to become a Jew first to become a Christian? Do you have to accept the yoke of the Law and obey the 612 commands? Well, some of them hardly ever come up. I have never been tempted to boil a kid in his mother’s milk; we are talking about a baby goat by the way.
There were people called God-fearers who were tried to do their best with these 612 commands. But in a world without anesthesia, no! Fortunately for those guys, Acts 15 describes the major council meeting that took place in Jerusalem that decided that gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised to be saved or to be anything else. But why didn’t they just quote what Jesus said about it. Why isn’t there something in the Gospels that somebody made up and attributed to Jesus? This is like we are told by many of the scholars, many of the sayings were invented later, maybe because Christians believed that is how the Lord was leading them and guiding them, maybe through the words of a Christian prophet. If it was Jesus, it didn’t matter if it was him on earth or in heaven, if Jesus said it then we will put it in the Gospel. If that is the model then where is Jesus’ teaching on circumcision? There is not a word about it in the Gospels. Apparently, somebody didn’t feel free to make it up.
Earlier, there was mention of speaking in tongues that threatened to blow the church at Corinth wide open in 1st Corinthians 12-14. And 1st Corinthians is the one letter of Paul where he frequently alludes to Jesus’ teachings on various topics of debate. There is nothing about prophecy, tongues and interpreting tongues; why not quote Jesus, he was the authoritative and that would settle the matter. Apparently, because nobody knew anything on whether Jesus said about the topic; it was an issue in Israel and nobody felt free to just make something up. Interestingly, in my daughter high school religion class the teacher brought in a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu and others. I was invited to speak on Christianity where my daughter actually arranged that I go and speak there. So I came in for about an hour and answered questions and it was a great time. But about two-thirds of the way through, the teacher wanted to ask a question? She said, if Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure and significant one, why is there only one historian in the ancient world whoever mentioned Jesus? I prayed and said to the Lord, well I will find out how much freedom I have here. As nicely and gently as I could, I said there was actually about a dozen or so testimonies of Jesus. There were people with strange-sounding names like the one she knew about, Josephus, but there were places like the Talmud, a Jewish commentary. In Greek circles, a man by the name of Mara bin Serapion and another by the name of Lucian of Samosta and in Roman circles there was Salius and Suetonius. These are all laid out in detail with arguments for and against the reliability in a wonderful book by a Dutch Calvinist from Michigan by the name of Robert van Weirs, ‘Jesus, outside the New Testament.’ So, I answered her question as I did with all their questions.
Let’s create a composite, let’s put all the testimonies together of non-Christian writers from the earliest century, following the life of Jesus. So, we get from them that Jesus most certainly existed, he was Jewish and he lived in the first third of the 1st century as we have stated already. And according to them, he was born out of wed-lock and from very interesting stories by those who doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, they imagined in that regard that someone had sex with Mary; a Roman soldier was suggested as being such a person. But, they do acknowledge that Jesus was born out of wedlock. When he grew up, his ministry intersected with that of a man named John who baptized people for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. He had a brother named James, who was martyred in 62 AD by a high priest named Albinus. To use Josephus’ phrase, he worked wondrous feats, he gathered disciples with five being mentioned by name, even though a couple of those names were sort of corrupted. He regularly came in conflict with the Jewish authorities over interpretations of the Law. He was crucified under Pontus Pilate which narrows the time frame between the years of 26-36 AD. One tradition from Talmud that appears to have gotten slightly garbled was that he was hung on a tree, but even Christians spoke of being suspended from a Cross being akin to hanging on a tree on Passover Eve. He was a sorcerer who led Israel astray. This sounds like another reference to the tradition about miracles, like from the pages of the Gospels as we hear the charge that he cast out demons. He was believed to be the Messiah and he was believed to have been raised from the dead by his followers after his death who continued to meet together with their numbers growing. Now they sing a hymn to Jesus and worship him as if he were a God.
Well, this is not the amount of detail that we find in the four Gospels, true enough, but then nobody had any idea that this was someone that one day would be the founder of the greatest religion yet to come about. Nobody in the ancient world ever wrote biographies about people unless they were wealthy, government officials, kings and queens and their courts, military rulers and leaders, aristocracy, philosophers or religious teachers who were in institutionalized sanctioned positions of authority. Jesus fit none of those categories. This is about as much, maybe a little more than you might have expected. There are some great websites and you can find dozens of names of 1st century Jewish and Greek writers. Then the website portrays that if Jesus had existed then why none of these 1st-century historians referred to him; I think because none of them were historians. There was a geographer, a botanist, the philosopher Philo who died in AD 50 of Alexander Egypt probably before Christianity ever got there. Either someone is downright deceptive or they are just copying from another source and never bothered to check to see if these people really were historians. I can’t think of a reason why a botanist would refer to Jesus.