Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?” Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:
1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.
I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.
Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted. In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response. None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.
From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.
To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out. He writes,
However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents. It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.
Well, not quite. To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position. On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.” I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims. To start with, consider this:
Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).
Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully. Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects. Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no. Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.” In other words, the authors copied material. What did they copy from? Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence. Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8). John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.
So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend. This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.
The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life. From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb. Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled. What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked? I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it. In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.
If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record. Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them. And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)? An every-day occurrence, it seems. Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians. Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian. For example,
And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.
About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.
So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus? As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament. Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives. As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.” This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.
Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:
However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record: 1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection. I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak. The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it. But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.
Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead. This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic. And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).
The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT. Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on. It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well. To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts. But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.