In late 2013 Dr. Craig Blomberg taught a thirty-session class for Credo Courses on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This blog is a transcript (with some organizational elements and graphics added) of the first session of that course.
Widely Held Myths About Ancient Sources
This class is about the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This first session is “Widely Held Myths About Ancient Sources.”
In just about every period of time in our modern world there are popular events, claims, rumors, legends that become well know throughout the country and the world but are not based on the best historical evidence.
And this is especially true when it comes studying Jesus, when it comes to studying Christian origins, when it comes to studying the Gospels of the New Testament. We can categories these in several ways.
One is to begin with perspectives that are unrelated to any real historical evidence. In just about every era of history one finds a handful of scholars and a lot of lay people who come up with the notion that there is not support even to believe that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed.
And in one of the later segments of this course we will look at the support outside of Christian circles, from non-christian authors in the ancient world, that demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus really existed.
Legendary, Mythical, and Hypothetical Perspectives
More commonly what we find are legendary, mythical, hypothetical suggestive stories. Some of these have been around from the ancient world on.
The New Testament Apocrypha
Shortly after the New Testament was completed in the first-century there were Apocryphal gospels. Apocrypha is simply a word that means hidden. And different kinds of legends, stories, myths were created, often attributed to some famous early Christian figure. And because they were supposedly revealed to just a handful of people or maybe just one person they could try to pawn themselves off as truth that had been hidden from the majority of the Christian world. Even though, in fact, there was no historical reliability to them.
These books in the ancient New Testament Apocrypha and books that were added to them in the middle ages covered such topics as:
- Jesus the boy wonder who turned clay pigeons into living birds and they flew away.
- Who got made at a playmate who kept taunting him and stretched out his hand and withered him up until his father was so upset that he begged Jesus’ dad Joseph to convince Jesus to undo the miracle.
- These legends covered the so called hidden years of Jesus as a teenager and as a young adult.
The Gospels and the New Testament have one story of Jesus at age twelve teaching in the temple and otherwise we know nothing about him from his earliest years until he is about thirty and begins his public ministry.
So perhaps as was often believed in the middle ages, Jesus went off to India to study with eastern sages and gurus. Or maybe he became an Essene that monastic group of Jews that lived in the wilderness or lived in special neighborhoods almost ghettos in major cities.
Islam’s Misunderstandings of Jesus
All kinds of issues come up in Islamic circles. And Islam was birthed in the seventh-century with Mohammed in Arabia. In Islamic circles there is something called the Gospel of Barnabas, that we have:
- A sixteenth-century manuscript in Italian
- A fourteenth-century manuscript in Spanish
…nothing older than that. And Jesus in this document is portrayed as merely a prophet and not the Messiah even though the Quran, the holy book of Islam, does at least grant that Jesus was Messiah, but not son of God. That’s considered blasphemous in Islam.
So there are contradictions between the Gospel of Barnabas and the Quran that many muslims are not aware of. But the biggest issue is that this is a document of medieval fiction. There is no evidence to show that it is any older than the fourteenth-century. Probably based on various misunderstanding of the nature of Judaism and Christianity that circulated in Muslim circles beginning from the time of Muhammed onward.
Historians tell us that he [Muhammed] meet various Jews and Christians, that he was first sympathetic to because they were monotheists like he. But they were not entirely orthodox Jews or Christians. And it’s interesting the only miracle of Jesus that’s recorded in the Quran is that same story from one of the New Testament Apocrypha about Jesus breathing life into clay birds and them flying away.
The Modern Fiction of Dan Brown
When we move to the modern period there are all kinds of fictitious novels. None in recent years coming close to having the impact as Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code published in 2003 and translated into countless languages of the world and for a year or two period of time one of the world’s best selling books. A movie was made out of it and, ironically, it was the fact that the movie didn’t do all that well that doomed books sales to finally begin to tail off.
The Da Vinci Code: A Novel by Dan Brown
And yet, amazing things have resulted. Amazingly horrifying if you’re an educator. Prior to 2003 in would have been unheard of in lay circles to say nothing of the academy, university circles, for a reputable person to talk about the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that had something to do with the establishment of the canon, the books of the New Testament.
For people who have grown up in a liturgical church context they’re probably familiar with what is called the Nicene Creed. It’s an ancient and very respected statement of faith that is organized around the persons of the Trinity. It affirms that we believe in God the Father, that we believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, that we believe in the Holy Spirit. The council of Nicaea was all about understanding and discussing trinitarian theology.
The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. / Courtesy of Coemgenus on en.wikipedia.
It’s true the new Christian Emperor Constantine did commission fifty new copies of the Bible to be penned and to be circulated to representative portions of the Roman Empire. But there is no evidence that there was any discussion about what books should be in a New Testament. We will come to that topic as well in a later lecture.
But because Dan Brown in the DaVinci Code fictitiously made up the claim that part of the council of Nicea was about discussing the canon, and that Constantine in a politically heavy-handed way imposed his will on the bishops gathered there so that in essence the winning side of a massive debate is what created the New Testament. Now here’s the scary piece. University professors quote that, teach students that that is how the New Testament canon was formed and there’s not a shred of historical truth to it.
Distortions of Recently Discovered Evidence
A second category is a bit more subtle. Here we speak of the distortion of “recently” discovered evidence. And I put recently in quotation marks because I’m thinking of the last sixty or seventy years, recent in comparison to the length of the history of the Christian church.
Probably the most famous of all of this recently discovered evidence involves the Dead Sea Scrolls. Shortly after World War II in the late 1940’s in very out of the way caves tucked into the side of cliffs in the Judean wilderness in Israel were discovered ancient pottery jars containing literally thousands of fragments and fortunately a handful of well preserved texts written almost all in Hebrew that included, on the one hand, more than two-hundred copies of parts or all of the various Old Testament books (the Hebrew scriptures) every book represented except for Esther.
Fragment of Enoch / Curtesy of the Library of Congress
But equally and perhaps for some people more fascinating were the scrolls that represented the literature of what appears to have been a community of Essenes (the monastic Jews to which we referred earlier) living near the Dead Sea (hence the name Dead Sea Scrolls) at a site in Israel known as Qumran.
The Dead Sea Scrolls containing these two kinds of documents on the one hand affirmed how well the Old Testament had been copied because some of these texts were nearly a thousand years older than any previously known existing Hebrew Bible. And in many cases the amount of changes that had occurred over the centuries was quite minuscule.
But for our purposes more interesting were the sectarian documents, the literature presumably composed by the members of this monastic community. And here is where we get distortion of true evidence. All kinds of information emerged from these texts about the nature of this one branch of Judaism largely in the decades and even a couple of centuries leading up to the time of Christ and the formation of the New Testament.
The Leviticus Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls / Curtesy of the Library of Congress
But you can find books, you can find blogs, you can find claims that say the Dead Sea Scrolls contain Christian documents. They do not. You can find claims that what information emerges from these documents completely undermines the foundation of Christianity. It doesn’t. All of the texts are now available, have been translated, into many modern languages including English. Get a copy. Read it for yourself. Check my claims out.
What we learn about is prolific detail about one sect of Judaism that:
- Bore some interesting similarities to some of the teachings of John the Baptist.
- Saw themselves as preparing the way for the coming of not one but two Messiahs, a royal and a priestly one since the assumption was they would come from different tribes and different lines of the house of Israel.
- We find messianic hopes attached to some of the same texts that Christian New Testament writers appeal to.
- We find information about titles like the “Son of God.” It doesn’t always mean a divine being but can, in some contexts in Judaism, just be a synonym for messiah.
We finds all kinds of interesting information about the diversity of first-century A.D. and B.C. Judaism but nothing that is Christian and nothing that contradicts Christianity.
Then there is the famous gnostic literature. And we will be saying more about this topic in coming talks as well. Gnosticism was a second-century A.D. mutation, if you like, or synthesis of various Greek philosophical ideas with bits and pieces of Christianity.
Gnostics were radically dualist. That is to say they believed the world of matter, the material world, and the immaterial world should be kept sharply differentiated. In their mythology about the creation of the universe matter was inherently evil, an emanation from an original godhead rebelled against the fulness of deity, in gnostic thought, by creating a material world.
And so redemption in gnosticism is not forgiveness of sin, as for Christians, it is liberation from the material world. Gnostics don’t look for a bodily resurrection they look for the immortality of the soul, freed from the fetters of the body and the material world and encouraged people to anticipate that experience in this life through oftentimes very ascetic world denying practices, extreme fasting, the promotion of celibacy and the like. Although somewhat paradoxically a minority of gnostics swung the pendulum to the opposite direction and said in essence, if matter doesn’t matter let’s indulge it as much as we can in this life since it won’t be around for eternity.
The Nag Hammadi Literature
At about the same time the Dead Sea Scrolls were being discovered and therefore very much overshadowed by that discovery, gnostic literature in Egypt at a site known as Nag Hammadi was emerging also in the late 40’s. And like the Dead Sea Scrolls it took several decades for the most fragmentary of all of its works to finally be translated and be available in modern languages including English. We will talk, as I mentioned, about some of the most significant documents later but here let’s talk about some of the most sensationalized ones.
The Gospel of Judas
The Gospel of Judas emerged as recently as the mid 2000’s. We knew about this text from the ancient second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, but we had never found a copy of any portion of it. It’s not an entire gospel. It doesn’t tell the entire story of the life of Christ but only of his last week. And it turns Judas into the hero. After all, it argues, somebody had to betray Jesus if he was to be executed as the atonement for the sins of the world. So Judas agree to do it, looking like the horrible person that he is portrayed as but secretly promised by Jesus that he would still get to go to heaven to make up for his treachery.
We have known since the early church that there was a sect of gnosticism, the Cainites, we don’t know for sure that they produced the Gospel of Judas but it certainly fit there milieu, that took most of the heros of the New Testament and turned them into villains and vise-versa. This teaches us nothing about the Jesus of the first-century but a lot about one gnostic sect perhaps in the late second-century.
The Gospel of Jesus Wife
Even more recently, in the fall of 2012, the Internet was abuzz with what was entitled, hence the quotation marks, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Did you know, Jesus had a wife? He didn’t. But a professor, Karen King, at Harvard University revealed to the world that she had been given a document on ancient parchment, apparently dateable to the fourth-century, in the Coptic language (one of the languages of ancient Egypt where many of these gnostic finds occurred) and it was very fragmentary, it had snippets of text with lots of things missing. But one line that included, possibly translated this way, the words, “And Jesus said, my wife…” nothing more in the context to determine what that was all about.
Well, scholars immediately pointed out that the same word for wife can mean woman and there is no guarantee that this was even talking about someone Jesus had married. Karen King herself made it clear that if this should turn out to be a genuine find all that it would prove was some belief in one branch of fourth-century gnosticism that Jesus had a wife. But of course that’s not what the media focused on in their reporting. They focused on the probability that Jesus had a wife.
It wasn’t more than two weeks after that find however that Francis Watson of the University of Durham in England proved convincingly to almost all scholars that this was a complete modern forgery comprised of snippets of a genuinely ancient gnostic gospel called the Gospel of Thomas literally cut and pasted together to make it say things and then seamlessly produced on fourth-century parchment to say something that was never intended and was never written in any ancient context.
Jesus’ Family Tomb
Yet one further example of distortion of recently discovered evidence also from the mid–2000’s. As a result of a famous book by an archeologist popularized on a Discovery channel television show of quote-unquote Jesus family tomb.
If Jesus was buried and then reburied in an ossuary (a small bone box that Jews used after a corpse had rotted or decayed 9–12 months after burial partly to conserve space in a small country in underground or cave like tombs) well then he obviously couldn’t have been resurrected from the dead the third day afterwards now could he?
The Lost Tomb of Jesus Documentary
And a tomb was discovered in the Talpiot neighborhood of south Jerusalem (as bulldozers were clearing the way for more modern buildings) that included these ossuaries, ornate bone boxes, of people with names like Jesus and Mary and Joseph and James and some others that corresponded to some of the disciples. Never mind that there would have been no reason for disciples to be buried with Jesus as family but okay maybe they created such tightly knit relationships.
The trouble is that all of the signs suggest that this was a Maccabean date tomb from the second-century B.C. and that the ornateness suggested a very wealthy family. None of which corresponds to Jesus’ circumstances. Why then the coincidence of names? Ancient Judaism did not have the range of names that many modern culture have. For women, Mary (after Miriam Moses’ sister) was by far the most common women’s name. Simon (as in Simon Peter), Joshua (which gets anglicized to Jesus by way of Greek), James, Joseph, and several other men’s names disproportionately accounted for a large percentage of the male population. If you actually do the statistics, look at the number of people in Israel over one century and the likelihood of having multiple burial sites with this cluster of names suddenly the coincidence doesn’t seem to be that significant.
Exercise Patience When Coming to Conclusions
We need to come to some conclusions for this first lecture. There are all kinds of claims and as time goes by there will be new claims that we can’t even anticipate. Be skeptical of every new claim. Maybe there will be some discoveries that are genuine. They do occur. But they are comparatively rare compared with exaggerated claims. And even genuine evidence that is discovered is often spun, is often skewed as it is reported by people in the first flush of enthusiasm for discovering something new. In an age in which we don’t like delayed gratification try to wait a few months or maybe even years for the scholarly community to settle out what some new discovery really means.
There are a lot of myths about historical evidence for the Gospels and for the events that they contain. But nothing has emerged in recent days that in any ways undermines the classic Christian claim for the credibility for the gospels from these various documents.