The Gospels and Critical History

I follow with interest some of the debates posted on SO concerning the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives. Christian apologists often accuse skeptics of approaching those narratives with an unwarranted degree of skepticism that assumes the falsehood of those narratives until and unless they meet unreasonable standards of proof not imposed on other ancient testimonies. For instance, they say that skeptics raise no quibbles about the general historicity of the accounts of Thucydides, Suetonius, or Tacitus, but impose a much stricter standard on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In particular, skeptics are accused of adopting a “post-Enlightenment” bias that automatically rejects miraculous accounts, such as the resurrection narratives, without due consideration of their actual historical support.

In my earlier post, “Hume’s Beautiful Argument,” I defended the Humean conclusion that skeptics are abundantly justified in imposing an especially heavy burden of proof on miracle reports. Robert J. Fogelin’s excellent A Defense of Hume on Miracles (Princeton, 2003) provides more detailed support of Hume and rebuts his two most notable recent critics, John Earman and David Johnson.

The broader claim that skeptics employ an invidious double standard in evaluating Gospel accounts is false in many instances. For instance, my attitude towards the Gospel narratives is precisely the same as my attitude towards those of Herodotus. Though I think that Herodotus is very broadly accurate (e.g. there was a Battle of Marathon; a Spartan king named Leonidas did lead the defense at Thermopylae; a citizen named Themistocles did lead the Athenian defense) I do not hesitate to doubt many of his stories when the evidence seems against them (e.g. modern military historians, such as Richard A. Gabriel, question Herodotus’ account of Athenian tactics at Marathon). Other of Herodotus’ tales, like the one about the king who was so proud of his queen’s beauty that he showed her off naked to his servant, seem just a bit (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) too good to be true. Likewise, with the Gospels, I see no reason to doubt that there was a wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who did and said some of the things attributed to him and who was executed by the Roman authorities sometime around 30 C.E. On the other hand, as with Herodotus, when a Gospel tale seems unlikely to me, I doubt it. No double standard.

The claim that skeptics employ a double standard is also hypocritical. It is apologists themselves who set the reliability bar much higher for the Biblical stories. Conservative Christian apologists do not merely claim that the Gospel accounts are broadly reliable or true in outline. Again, skeptics could easily concede that much. Conservative apologists, even when they are not strict infallibilists, maintain that the Gospels are true in detail, not merely in outline. Precisely how much of the detail is taken as literally true differs from writer to writer, but if an apologist doubts too much he risks repudiation (or worse) from his colleagues (SO recently carried the story of professional apologist Mike Licona who was fired for casting doubt on passages in Matthew). Hence, apologists themselves hold the Gospel narratives to a much higher standard of historical reliability than we expect from, say, Herodotus. Skeptical scholars can hardly be blamed if they do hold Biblical texts to the same high standards of historical accuracy as the apologists.

In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. It is the Christian apologists who routinely make unwarrantable assumptions about the composition of the Gospels. Apologists frequently attribute to the Gospel writers aims, methods, and resources more characteristic of modern critical historians than of First Century writers of apologetic and confessional literature. The Gospels are vehicles of proclamation (the “Good News”) written in narrative form and with an undisguised apologetic and evangelistic agenda (e.g. John 20:31). The differences between such writings and any specimen of modern critical history are vast and obvious. Yet we are told that the Gospel writers were in frequent consultation with the eyewitnesses, who would not have allowed fabrications or alterations to enter the text. We are told that these authors were fact-checkers, critical evaluators, and sticklers for accuracy, as a modern historian would be expected to be.

Really? Let’s try a thought experiment: What would a contemporary account of Jesus have looked like had it been written by a historian with the resources, aims, and methods of a modern critical historian? Let’s imagine then that around C.E. 60, when Peter and other eyewitnesses would still have been alive and vigorous, a skeptical but sympathetic historian decided to get to the bottom of this Jesus business and write the definitive account. Let’s make the anachronistic supposition that he would have had the objectives and resources and would have employed the methods of a well-supported modern critical historian. For instance, let’s imagine that he had a generous travel budget, research assistants, access to documents and public records, and ease of travel and communication similar to what a modern historian might enjoy. How would he have proceeded?

He would have begun by trying to find as many eyewitnesses as possible to interview. He would have carefully recorded these accounts verbatim, insisting that his interviewees report only what they personally witnessed and not allowing them to pass along hearsay, surmise, or inference as fact. He would have tried to interview any of the surviving former disciples, as well as Mary Magdalene and any other of Jesus’s followers or associates that could be found. He would be especially interested in interviewing James, the brother of Jesus, and any other siblings or relatives he could locate. If possible, he would track down some of the “500” who supposedly saw the risen Jesus at once and try to get a clear account of the exact circumstances (Was Jesus on a stage or a hilltop so that everyone could get a good look at him? Did you all know Jesus personally so that you could be sure to identify him correctly? And so forth). Particular efforts would have been made to interview non-Christians such as Roman or Jewish officials from the prefecture of Pontius Pilate or the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’ trial.

After collecting several dozen interviews, these accounts would have to be judiciously compared, their discrepancies noted (and there are ALWAYS discrepancies between eyewitness accounts), and their points of independent agreement highlighted. Naturally, he would have to consider the trustworthiness of the individual witnesses, such as their state of mind or mental health and whether they had axes to grind or personal agendas. For instance, Jesus was said to have driven seven devils from Mary Magdalene, perhaps indicating that she was not a person of stable personality, and this would influence our evaluation of her testimony. The eyewitness testimony would then be compared to public records and any available writings, such as official documents, the “Q” compilations, the letters of Paul, and any other accounts or memoirs.

Our critical historian would be particularly careful to inquire into the exact circumstances of miracle claims, particularly those relating to the resurrection. Who, precisely, were the witnesses? What exactly did those who claimed to encounter the risen Jesus see? What were the precise details of time, place, and circumstance? Did the supposed witnesses really see Jesus as they saw him in life, or were the appearances of a visionary or hallucinatory nature? Do the witnesses substantially agree, or do their accounts diverge in major ways? Were the witnesses independent or did they influence one another or both fall under the influence of a third party?

Once all of the data had been compiled, organized, and evaluated

, and the work composed, what would he finished product be like? The sources would be front and center and abundantly documented in the form of extensive footnotes. The standards used to evaluate those sources would be made clear. Conclusions would be cautious and qualified carefully vis-à-vis the evidence. Stringent efforts would be made to sort fact from the fictitious accretions that inevitably creep in due to the fallibility and creativity of memory and the universal tendency of eyewitnesses to “see” what they want or expect to see. Good historians recognize that eyewitnesses, far from being a guarantee of accuracy, often are sources of bias or error. Further, the times and places of all key events would be specified so far as possible. Discrepancies and inadequacies in the evidence would be carefully noted, and alternative interpretations recognized.

Now, of course we do not know what our imaginary historian would have concluded, but it should be abundantly clear that his product would be very different from the Gospel records. Unlike our critical historian, the writers of the Synoptic Gospels cite no specific sources or eyewitnesses at all (John is an apparent exception). Luke, in his opening address to Theophilus, assures his reader (1:2-3) that he has carefully gone over “..the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel.” Yet we are told nothing about who these original eyewitnesses were or what they said. Indeed, Luke refers not to the original eyewitnesses themselves, but to the “traditions” handed down from them. It is not clear at all whether Luke has interviewed any of the eyewitnesses himself or whether he has gotten second-hand or third-hand reports of what they said. He tantalizingly mentions (1:1) “many” other writers who have drawn up accounts of these events, but he neither quotes nor cites any of these. Basically, Luke is just saying “trust me” to his reader. The difference between Luke’s and a modern critical historian’s treatment of sources could not be plainer, and Luke is the most “scholarly” of the Synoptics. The authors of Matthew and Mark cite no sources at all, and certainly offer no clear indication that they themselves were eyewitnesses (As we have noted, Luke admits that he was not an eyewitness. Apologist P.B. Ewen in her book Faith on Trial, Boardman & Holdman, 1999, argues that each Gospel is an original and independent witness. I offer an extended rebuttal in chapter 3 of Why I am not a Christian, available on the Secular Web).

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, refers to an eyewitness in two verses, 19:35 and 21:24. And just who was this alleged eyewitness? Well, we are not told exactly but he is referred to obliquely as “the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20).” Tradition came to identify this beloved disciple as John the son of Zebedee. OK, so does one Gospel at least record the testimony of an eyewitness?
There are some very odd things about the two passages of John that cite an eyewitness. The Gospel appears to draw to a solemn conclusion at the end of chapter 20. Chapter 21 looks like a later addendum and 21:24 sounds like the strained effort of a latter-day author who is trying just a bit too hard to make a case for the apostolic authorship of the Gospel. Verse 24 makes a very strong claim:

It is this same disciple [i.e. the “disciple whom Jesus loved”] who attests what has here been written. It was in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true.

Again, the author here is protesting just a bit too much, and he thereby betrays anxiety over the question of the book’s apostolic authenticity.

Verse 19:35, on the other hand, is part of a larger pericope, verses 31-37, that tells the story of the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side and recounts the (highly symbolic) flow of both blood and water from his side. As the commentators of the New English Bible note (p. 135):
In the blood and water Jn. perceives a deep theological significance see (7:38-39; 1 Jn. 5. 6,8); he intends this as a symbol of the gift of the Spirit, or, possibly, of baptism.

The point of the invocation of the eyewitness here appears to be to authenticate the occurrence of this highly theologically significant (though medically impossible) event. What we have here then does not look so much like an authentic original witness, but a post hoc attempt to validate a prior theological commitment.

Still, some reputable biblical scholars, and not just fundamentalist “scholars,” have regarded the Gospel of John as containing material originally transmitted orally by the apostle John to his followers, who at some point wrote down this testimony (or their memories of it). For the sake of argument, let’s accept this claim. Nevertheless, the book bears clear evidence of having been composed in several edited stages (see Smalley, pp. 374-375, The Oxford Companion to the Bible) before being published in final form by the Johannine community at Ephesus (around 90-100 C.E. according to the editors of The New Oxford Study Bible). Hence, whatever nuggets of authentic and reliable information John imparted had to pass through several hands and it is just not clear how much of the final product rests on that testimony. Further, the recollections of a single eyewitness are highly fallible and subject to numerous biases and distortions. This is why critical historians compare and contrast the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses to compensate so far as possible for the fallibility of individual memory.

Even conceding the apostolic origins and broad reliability of the Gospel of John, there are many reasons for doubting the details of its account. For one thing, in the Synopitcs, Jesus’ speech is terse, pithy, and given to the employment of parables and striking similes. In John, Jesus speaks in verbose dialogues and disquisitions. While John may have recorded the gist of these discourses, it is highly unlikely that he has gotten them verbatim. Memory just does not work that way (see John Dominic Crossan’s brilliant discussion of oral traditions and the foibles of memory in chapters 3 and 4 of his The Birth of Christianity, Harper, 1998).

Worse, some of the most important events recorded in the Gospel cannot have been witnessed by John for the simple reason that he was not present when these allegedly occurred. Verse 19:38 begins the story of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and how they acquired Jesus’ body and prepared it for burial by wrapping it in linen and applying spices. John could not possibly have witnessed any of this, and there is no indication of how this information was obtained. Also, John did not witness the alleged encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Mary Magdalene recorded in 20:11-17. He was not there. Verse 10 tells us that the disciples went home after viewing the empty tomb, leaving Mary there.

Here is what the Gospel says happened next: Mary was standing there weeping when she looks into the tomb and sees two angels. They ask her why she is weeping and Mary, who seems not the least fazed or surprised at having a conversation with two angelic beings, says “they have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Mary then turns around and sees Jesus, but for some unstated reason does not recognize him and thinks that he is the gardener. Not mentioning the two angels she has just talked to, she asks the “gardener” where Jesus’ body might be. Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him. Jesus then tells her not to touch him but to go his “brothers” and tell them that he is ascending to the Father. Thus, the only basis for this bizarre story is what John, maybe many years later, recalled as having been said to him by a possibly deranged woman in circumstances that were, to say the very least, highly unusual.

But what about the other appearance stories that John records? The most detailed of these

is recounted in chapter 21, but, as we noted, this chapter appears to have been a later addendum. Whether it is or not, we really have no idea whether any of the appearance stories go back to John’s original testimony or whether they are later accretions. The latter is more likely. The original text of the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, promises a post-mortem appearance but contains no such accounts. But if the author of the earliest Gospel knows of no such appearance stories, this makes highly suspect the detailed accounts found in the later Gospels. By the time the Gospels were set down in final form Christians were involved in fierce controversy with orthodox Jews, who dismissed their tales of a resurrected rabbi. The detailed appearance stories likely arose to deploy against such critics. The most famous of the appearance stories in John, the appearance to the doubting Thomas, seems to have been composed both to assure believers of the post-apostolic age that Jesus was indeed physically resurrected, and to condone such believers for having faith though, unlike Thomas and the other apostles, they have not seen the risen Jesus.

It is abundantly clear, then, that none of the Gospel accounts is at all like what a modern critical historian would write. A critical historian would try to make it plain just where the eyewitness testimony ends and where surmise, conjecture, or hearsay begins. With the Gospels we just cannot say. The Gospel writers all have big theological and apologetic axes to grind, and the ideological tail consistently wags the evidential dog. Of course, critical historians also can have ideological agendas, but the evidence has to be front and center or their colleagues will not listen to them. Critical historians try to draw a coherent account from the heterogeneous and often discrepant sources. The gospels narratives do not agree on some of the most vital information. For instance, the details of the resurrection accounts differ widely from Gospel to Gospel.

Now it could well be that, as apologists have often asserted, the discrepancies about what happened on Easter morning are inconsistent only to the extent that you would expect from eyewitnesses who had experienced very unusual events and who were in highly emotional states. OK, but a critical historian would interview as many of the supposed eyewitnesses as possible, compare contrast and evaluate, and try to piece together a consistent and coherent account. As the Gospel accounts stand, all we can really say is that Mary Magdalene, and possibly some other women whose identities are not clear, went on Easter morning to a tomb that they thought was Jesus’ and found it empty. Did they go to the right tomb? How did they know where Jesus was buried? (The Gospels, anticipating this objection, insist that they did see where Jesus was buried. Sounds to me like they were engaging in after-the-fact CYA.) Was Jesus buried in a tomb at all? The vast majority of crucified criminals were tossed into mass graves. How do we know that the stories about Joseph of Arimathea are reliable? How do we know that these stories are not pious legends invented by later Christians ashamed at the actual, dishonorable treatment of Jesus’ body? If Jesus’ body were placed in an honorable tomb, how do we know whether someone might have removed the body overnight? A modern critical historian would try to give us solid, well-evidenced answers to these questions, but with the Gospels we can only surmise.

What really happened after Jesus’ execution is one of history’s enduring mysteries. The best accounts we have, the canonical gospels, were put in their final forms long after the events they describe, and even if they do contain information going back to eyewitnesses, the final authors and editors were of a later generation and thoroughly mixed that original witness with later tradition and interpretation. The Gospel authors do not tell us what sources they draw upon and make no effort to compare and evaluate those sources. Matthew and Luke freely plagiarize Mark, which shows that their use of other source materials must have been similarly uncritical. The Gospels have undisguised apologetic, theological, and evangelistic agendas, and these agendas clearly shape the narrative. Much material of an undeniably legendary or fictitious nature has worked its way into the accounts (see Randall Helms, Gospel Fictions, Prometheus Books, 1988), once more indicating an uncritical approach to sources. The Gospels are inconsistent with each other; indeed, the best evidence against the reliability of the Gospel of John is the testimony of the Synoptics. In short, for anyone who wants a clear picture of what happened, especially concerning the resurrection and the postmortem appearances, the Gospels are a mess. Consequently, many of the things we would most like to know will remain forever elusive.