Can We Trust the Gospels?

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Doubting the Gospels

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I grew up in a solid evangelical church. The Gospels were assumed to be not only historically accurate but also inspired by God. In my teenage years I wondered about the trustworthiness of the Gospels. But my youth leaders reassured me. I was encouraged to learn that the inspiration of the Gospels was proved by the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Who else, besides the Holy Spirit, could inspire the evangelists to compose such amazingly parallel accounts of Jesus?

I went to college at Harvard. Though founded as a Christian school, and though the university seal continues to proclaim veritas christo et ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the Church,” Harvard in the 1970s wasn’t exactly a bastion of Christian faith. Plus, I was planning to major in philosophy, a discipline notorious for its atheistic bias. Many of my friends back home worried that I would lose my faith at “godless Harvard.”

During my freshman year, it wasn’t my philosophy courses that threw my faith for a loop, however. It was a New Testament class. Religion 140, “Introduction to Early Christian Literature,” was taught by Professor George MacRae, a top-notch New Testament scholar. As the semester began, I had my guard up, expecting Professor MacRae to be a Dr. Frankenstein who would create a monster to devour my faith. In fact, however, Professor MacRae was no mad scientist. One of the best lec- turers I ever had at Harvard, he seasoned his reasonable presentations with humorous quips among hundreds of valuable insights. His first lecture on the challenges of studying early Christianity was so impressive to me that I still remember his main points and use them when I teach seminary courses on the New Testament.

Professor MacRae followed this lecture with a fascinating exploration of the world of early Christianity. Next he turned to the letters of Paul. Though he investigated them as a critical scholar, his insights fit more or less with what I had learned in church. My guard began to come down.

But then we came to the Gospels. Professor MacRae did not deny their usefulness as historical sources. But he did argue that these documents, though containing some historical remembrances, were chock-full of legendary elements, including miracle stories, exorcisms, and prophecies. These were not to be taken as part of the historical record, he said. Rather, they were best understood as fictional elements added by the early Christians to increase the attractiveness of Jesus in the Greco-Roman world. The Gospels were not so much historical or biographical documents as they were theological tractates weaving together powerful fictions with a few factual data.

Perhaps what most shook my faith in the trustworthiness of the Gospels was Professor MacRae’s treatment of the similarities among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He explained per- suasively that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark in their writing. In the process, he also demonstrated how Matthew and Luke changed Mark, interjecting “contradictions” into the Gospel record. Listening to this explanation of why the Synoptic Gospels were so similar, I felt the rug being pulled out from under myconfidence in these writings. Where I had once been taught that these similarities were evidence of divine inspiration, I discov- ered that a straightforward historical explanation provided a simpler account of the data. How many other things have I been taught about the Gospels that aren’t true? I wondered.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

3 Responses to “Doubting the Gospels”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    June 20th, 2007 at 6:50 am

    I like this introduction to your next series of postings because as always you have a style like a one on one conversation. As an agnostic, bordering on atheism, I’m attracted to reading, talking, and listening to Christians because it’s interesting why you come to Christianity and adopt it as a worldview. Each of you seem to come to it differently.

    Admittedly I’m a huge skeptic. For me as an agnostic, Chris Hitchens’s challenge “Great claims require great evidence” seems to wipe out any chance that you can link 2000 year old, sketchy documents to a universe creator. But it’s sincerely fascinating to read the steps of someone who has spent so much time studying these historical documents. I greatly enjoy reading about your analytical process as you wrestle with the gospels. Far smarter people than I become Christians, and it’s interesting to read why.

    Best wishes on the new book. Looking forward to your next series of postings.

  2. Michael Halcomb Says:
    June 20th, 2007 at 8:20 am

    Dr. Roberts,
    Your opening few paragraphs have me wanting to read more!!! Currently, at the congregation where I serve, I am teaching through Mark’s account. I think a few of the people cannot handle the seeming tensions but I understand because I’ve been there. I’ve been trying to teach that each of the Gospel writers had different audiences and agendas and so, when they told some of the same stories but changed some of the details, they were doing it on purpose. Yet, this doesn’t make them liars and it doesn’t make them deceitful. (For instance why Mk has Jesus getting baptized and “immediately” going into the desert whereas Jn doesn’t mention the desert and instead has Jesus walking around and heading towards Cana.) Instead, it is just their way of telling the story in a way that it relates to their agenda and audience. Last week we discussed the discrepencies in the genealogies and some people really struggled with this. I’d always heard that one genealogy was of Joseph’s line and one was of Mary’s but that’s not what the text seems to say. Thus, I’ve just understood it as “different people were mentioned for different reasons” perhaps for honor purposes. What do you think. Some insight would be great.
    –Michael Halcomb

  3. Bill Goff Says:
    June 20th, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Many years ago(1975 -1976)while living and studying in Jerusalem Israel I encountered a very different view of the Synoptic Gospels than I had been taught at Fuller Theological Seminary. In Jerusalem I met Dr. Robert Lindsey, a Southern Baptist pastor who had lived about 30 years in Israel. He spoke Hebrew fluently and occasionally taught at the Hebrew University. He had translated the Gospel of Mark from Greek to modern Hebrew. He had assumed that Mark was the first Gospel. As he carefully translated, he compared the Greek of Mark’s Gospel to that of Matthew and Luke. He noticed something odd. When there were parellels of Mark and Luke, the Greek was easy to translate into idomatic Hebrew almost as if it had originally been written in Hebrew and translated to Greek. However, when Mark stood alone, he was difficult to translate into Hebrew. This oddity eventually led Dr. Lindsey to the conclusion that Luke was written first and that Luke used prior written Hebrew manuscripts.
    One of the traditional arguments for Marcan priority is that it is the shortest of the gospels. The presumption is that shorter writings come before longer writings. However a look at the individual pericopes (sections) of the gospels shows that Mark’s sections are longer than Luke’s. It is clear that Mark, not Luke embelishes individual sections. The reason that Mark is shorter overall is that he has not included most of Jesus’ teachings.
    About 15 years ago I discussed this theory of Lucan priority with Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who lived most of his life in the Middle East and who has written incisively on the Gospels. Last year I was able to discuss it again with Dr. Bailey who said he had studied the issue and now believes that Luke is the first Gospel.
    Dr. Bailey has a very good discussion of the reliability of eyewitnesses (Luke’s sources)in his book Jacob and the Prodigal. His conclusion is that the Synoptic Gospels are very reliable historically. I hope Mark Roberts book comes to the same conclusion.


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