Sunday, April 16, 2006

Real Gospels

There are many who dismiss the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as unreliable, fabricated or a-historical.

Thursday night, a
popular cable news host said, “I don't know any theologians who take [the Gospels] as literal history.” (His reading list must be rather short.) His point was that the actual events didn’t really matter. What was important was the moral lesson taught in the stories. (“But no matter how you see Judas, the lesson is do not violate your beliefs -- do not violate your beliefs or another human being for money.”)

His guest, Father James Martin (author of My Life With the Saints) found himself basically agreeing with him. (Full transcript.)

There are many reasons why someone might decide to take this view of the canonical (“official”) Gospels. But none of these reasons is rooted in compelling evidence. As
Keith mention in his comment on my previous post, People “need to read [the documents] and make up their mind for themselves.” Even the skeptic at says, “Many of these ‘enlightened’ skeptics would themselves benefit from the ‘trip to the library’ that they advise their opponents to take!”

So what are the facts?

The Gospels are much earlier than many people realize. The
traditional dates for the completion of the four gospels are: Mark A.D. 60; Matthew and Luke between A.D. 60-70; John between A.D. 90-100. There is evidence that they could be even earlier. But these dates are well accepted as "latest likely" dates.

The oral tradition is reliable. When many people hear that the stories in the Gospel were circulated orally before they were written down, they immediately think of the “
telephone game.” But this is the wrong model. Instead we should think of the father reading Goodnight Moon to his daughter who corrects him every time he skips a page or even a word. The first-century Jewish culture ensured the accurate transmission of oral tradition.

But here is the most important fact. The central claim of the Gospels, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, is the least incredible explanation for the birth of Christianity. Of course, some dismiss the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as too difficult to believe. Some
reject the possibility of any miracles at all.

(N. T. Wright is a Christian, but he is also
a genuine historian who takes the historical issues seriously: “Frankly, both the desire to ‘prove’ orthodoxy and the desire to ‘disprove’ it ought to be anathema to the serious historian.” So, while he might not be totally unbiased (Who really is?), his comments must be taken seriously.)

But N. T. Wright states, “[The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection] are not the sort of thing, quite frankly, that people in that world spoke or wrote about….They tell stories with the puzzled air of someone saying, ‘I didn’t understand it at the time, and I’m not sure I do now, but this is more or less how it was.’… All of the evidence now indicates that something very like what the [Gospel writers] describe must indeed have taken place. However much they have shaped their stories and changed them this way and that, their basic testimony to the strange bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth must be accepted as the best historical explanation available to us for why the early church ever existed at all, for why it took the shape and told the stories that it did.”

Yet many claim along with
Michael Martine: “When Christians solemnly declare in churches across America that Christianity is the one true faith and that all other religions borrowed from it, they are saying the most ignorant of lies.”

So which is it?

Some argue that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is not that important, that it doesn’t matter if it really happened.

Alex Beam of the Boston Globe
is quoted: “The literal truth of Jesus' story isn't what animates Christian belief. Many of us are awed by the figurative beauty of a story that created a system of values and beliefs that has survived for 2,000 years.”

The Raving Atheist correctly points out, “If it's all just a fairy tale… there are plenty other stories with less violence, and a much more straightforward message.”

N. T. Wright agrees, “If Christianity is not rooted in things that actually happened in first-century Palestine, we might as well be Buddhists, Marxists, or almost anything else.”

Some might be tempted to throw up their hands in frustration and say, “Who can know for sure?” Others might even argue that it’s not all that important. “I’ll just go on believing what I believe. It works for me.”

But the truth or falsity of Christianity is not a question we can just disregard as irrelevant or unknowable. The stakes are too high. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.
God in the Dock, “Christian Apologetics”

If you are going to reject the Gospel accounts, you owe it to yourself to make sure their claims are unsupportable.

If you are going to say, “Jesus is risen!” then you need to make sure you really believe it. And you’d better be prepared to accept the
world-changing consequences.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


jeff franczak said...

Yes, I will declare “Jesus is risen!” I am convinced and I will live for Him!

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic...or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

So, reader, what do you say about Him?

Ruth said...

The principal at my 7yr old's school called me into her office last Thursday to tell me she's worried that he actually takes the Bible literally, and could I please stop him from reading it.

What does one say to that?

I take it literally too - what's the point of believing if Jesus didn't rise bodily from the dead?
(I didn't answer that - I was too shocked!) But it's true.

How offensive to God, that he sends his one and only son, pours out his wrath on him, and raises him from the dead, and they best people can come up with is a 'gee that man taught some nice moral lessons'.

Keith.Drury said...

Great post! I hope 10,000 people read it! (I have nothing to add).