Review: “Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision” by James Thompson

imagesMany will pick up this volume expecting an entirely different book. Despite the title, there is nothing here regarding church elders, the appointment of leaders, church planting strategies, the role of the congregation in making decisions, etc. Any discussion of church polity is noticeably lacking. This is at least in part due to the scope of the author’s study. Whether by conviction or from a desire to secure the widest possible readership, Thompson limits his survey to the letters of Paul accepted by everyone, including the most liberal of scholars. This removes the pastoral epistles and such books as Ephesians and Colossians from consideration (as well as the narrative material in Acts describing Paul’s approach to pastoral ministry).

This truncating of the biblical sources—and of the subject of pastoral ministry—will be understandably off-putting to many evangelical readers. But it would be a mistake to skip this book altogether. The author may not include all of the aspects of ‘pastoral ministry according to Paul’ we would prefer him to, but what he does cover, he does very thoroughly. And the resulting insights he draws from these letters are rich with meaning for everyone involved in pastoral ministry. Thompson doesn’t devote much time to exploring the how of pastoral ministry, but he quite capably brings out the why. As the old saying goes: “If you understand the why, the how comes more naturally.”

Early in the book, we see the problem needing to be addressed. Scholars and church leaders frequently have differing, conflicting visions of what they mean by “pastoral ministry,” and this is even true of leaders within the same church tradition. As the author notes, too many churches today are seeking pastors who are a combination of Jay Leno, Lee Iacocca and Dr. Phil. Contributing to the problem is the unhelpful separation of theory and praxis in theological education. Thompson notes Edward Farley’s observation that all theological study was at one time designated “practical theology.” Now too many of the practical skills that are taught have no solid basis in theology, and too little theological study is applied to real life.

Thompson moves from this problem to a careful, detailed examination of six of Paul’s letters. He shows that, for Paul, “all theology is pastoral.” And throughout these epistles, we see one consistently repeated pastoral ambition: the formation and transformation of the church communities. Everything Paul does is centered on this purpose. His ultimate goal is to present to Christ the fully formed churches that were entrusted to him. This objective defines and determines his ministry. It also makes his ministry focus both corporate and eschatological:

The task of the Christian leader is to work with God in the construction of a building that will be complete only at the end.

This is a good reminder to us that pastoral ministry—the forming and transforming of church communities—is never “finished” in this lifetime. The author also repeatedly emphasizes Paul’s corporate understanding of the Christian faith, as opposed to an overly individualistic one.

The biblical theology (in the Pauline letters studied) is excellent, and the author has provided us with edifying and thought-provoking insights. Paul’s priority of community formation is a crucial one, and a priority we do well to emulate. Had Thompson chosen to include all of Paul’s epistles, he could have used the apostle’s own words in his letter to the Colossians:

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.
Colossians 1:28-29

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Guest post: Taking back Christmas

[This is a guest post from my good friend Peter Boehmer. He wrote this in response to an email decrying how the real meaning of Christmas is being lost to overly sensitive political correctness and commercialism.]

UnknownWhile I concur with the message, I am saddened by its enforcer . . . PC (Politically Correct), when it should have been by the RC (not Roman Catholic but the Religiously Correct). “Christmas” was co-opted years ago by materialism. “Black Friday” indeed . . . the day most retailers move out of debt to profit. We worship the god of “the world” which is materialism. Rather, for followers of Christ, we should acknowledge him by visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the poor, healing the sick.

Rejoice that Christmas is no longer in the mall or even in public school but rather in the church, and even more in our hearts not our wallets. Yet it is we, not politicians and the business elite, who should be taking back the meaning and exercising of Christmas, not via materialism but by loving our neighbor (and enemy) as ourselves.

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How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

imagesLet’s recap what we’ve learned so far (see below for links to previous posts): We’ve verified that Jesus was a real, historical person. We’ve seen that the story of Jesus was unique and not copied from existing religions. We’ve discovered the careful criteria the early followers of Jesus used to accept the early, confirmed Gospel accounts of Jesus and to reject the later, aberrant gospels. But this still leaves us with questions. The early Christians may have accepted the New Testament Gospels, but how much should we trust these Gospels today? How reliable are their descriptions of Jesus’ words and life?

Determining historical reliability, not divine inspiration
Let’s clear something up right away. The question of whether or not the Bible is inspired by God is an important and fascinating one. But it’s not the question we’re seeking to answer now. Even if the Gospels are merely the work of human authors, they can still be incredibly helpful to us by providing historical information about Jesus.

And we need to remember that a source doesn’t have to be 100% error-free to be considered historically reliable. We routinely utilize ancient sources for information about historical people and events, and none of these other sources are infallible. So the issue of whether the Bible is completely without error and inspired by God isn’t necessary for our current study. All we’re trying to determine is whether the New Testament descriptions of Jesus are generally historically reliable.

The Jesus Seminar
The Jesus Seminar was a group of people who met together during the 1980s and 1990s. They’re most remembered for using colored beads to vote on which biblical sayings of Jesus were genuine. During their heyday, they received media attention that was unprecedented for research concerning the historical Jesus. In fact, the Seminar leaders such as Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan were open about their desire to seek such press for their work. Many other Jesus researchers were troubled by this, seeing this media blitz as hype and unworthy of serious scholarship.

Adding to the unease of the scholarly world was the way the Seminar described its membership. They were usually referenced as a broad consensus of scholars, when almost all of them were from the extreme “left” of Jesus scholarship (not to mention the fact they were almost exclusively American). Describing them as representing a broad range of scholarly views would be similar to describing either very conservative Republicans or very liberal Democrats as representing (by themselves) a broad range of American political views. Not only was such a description inaccurate and offensive, it seemed intentionally misleading.

There was also a question as to how many Seminar members could be rightly called “scholars.” While the Seminar did include such well-known scholars as Funk and Crossan, most of the members were noticeably lacking in qualifications. Most had written only one or two minor papers, or nothing at all. Few had significant teaching positions, many teaching at community colleges or with no teaching role anywhere. Some even lacked the requisite degrees to be considered part of such a scholarly Seminar, such as filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (director of films such as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers). To many, it was telling that this “Seminar” wasn’t associated with any reputable scholarly guild, such as the Society of Biblical Literature.

Seminar leader Robert Funk, in particular, made it clear from the beginning the Seminar had an agenda of correcting and changing the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. They were seeking to give the world a “new fiction” of Jesus. People with strong views (whether devout Christians or outspoken critics) may approach historical study with a prior agenda, and this doesn’t necessarily call into question their conclusions. But it’s disingenuous to describe such research as the result of a broad overview of mainstream scholars. Even if one was to leave out evangelical and conservative scholars, this Seminar is still not remotely close to being representative of the wide range of Jesus scholars. In fact, many have suggested their results aren’t even representative of the views of all Seminar members, but of only a handful of its leaders such as Robert Funk.

imagesSo why am I talking so much about the Jesus Seminar? Because it still presents the most well-known, scholarly critique of the reliability of the New Testament Gospels. If their studies were sound, then we must face the results. If not, we need to know why. The Seminar fellows sought to determine the authenticity of the statements of Jesus recorded in the canonical Gospels. They used colored beads to cast their votes:

red = Jesus definitely said this
pink = Jesus probably said this or something like it
grey = Jesus probably didn’t say this
black = Jesus definitely didn’t say this

In their resulting work, The Five Gospels, they claim that only 18% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels were actually spoken by him. But not only are there problems with the makeup and agenda of the Seminar, there are serious problems with their methodology. Let’s take a closer look at some of the criteria they used in making these determinations:

Anti-supernatural bias
Many, if not most, of the members of the Jesus Seminar dismissed out of hand (a priori) any biblical clams of supernatural events, such as Jesus performing miracles or rising from the dead. Some readers may be sympathetic to such a view. But to claim one is fairly considering the biblical claims regarding Jesus, while dismissing the possibility of anything supernatural before one even begins to look at the evidence, is not intellectually honest. This guarantees an outcome—any outcome—other than the biblical accounts. We all have our presuppositions. But we need to be willing to set to the side our presuppositions and consider other possibilities, to follow the evidence wherever it leads even if it proves us wrong.

Distrust of oral history
Jesus was crucified in the early 30s CE (or AD). The critics generally accept the New Testament Gospels as written between the 70s and 90s of the first century. Before these Gospel accounts were written down, Jesus’ deeds and words were passed on by word of mouth. Many of the Seminar members doubt whether this oral history could have been conveyed accurately. At the very most, they feel, it could only have preserved the short, pithy sayings of Jesus. But this view flies in the face of a mountain of scholarly research to the contrary. We simply know too much about the reliability of oral history to doubt the Gospel material (for this reason).

People of different religions frequently commit to memory huge portions of their religious texts. Muslims have memorized the entire Qur’an, and Jews have memorized all of their Torah. The first century people were accustomed to passing on history orally, and they did so with a high degree of consistency. The historical stories they recounted were very familiar to them, and any deviation would have been quickly criticized. (Try telling your child the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Armadillos” and see how long it takes her to correct you. Better yet, announce in a history class that Thomas Jefferson was the first American president and see how many people can correct your history without needing to consult a written document.)

The Jewish people of the first century were used to remembering and recounting to each other detailed events and extensive teachings. This was everyday life for them. And we don’t have to read very many of the teachings of Jesus before we recognize he taught in a rhythmic, repetitious manner that would have been easily memorized. It still is. If we were to prompt people—even completely irreligious people—with the beginning words, “Our Father . . . ,” a surprising number of people would be able to finish the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. The early followers of Jesus were dedicated to following him at the risk of their very lives. Certainly they would have been highly motivated to thoroughly know all of the accounts and teachings of Jesus and to be resistant to any substantive change anyone might try to introduce.

And let’s not forget the fact there were still eyewitnesses available when these Gospels were written. As Luke noted in the opening of his Gospel:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
Luke 1:1-4

(Many critics also seem to forget the Gospels aren’t the earliest Christian writings. James and Paul were writing about Jesus in the 40s CE, just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. We’ll look at this more closely in a future post.)

Artificial and arbitrary restrictions about what Jesus could have said
According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus wouldn’t have commented on the events occurring around him, he would never have delivered any longer talks, and he wouldn’t have been a part of any dialogue or conversation. (Even if he actually did any of these things, it’s just not possible for his followers to have correctly remembered Jesus’ statements and the immediate context!) No, we’re told, Jesus only spoke in short, witty sayings.

imagesEven more troubling, the Seminar insists that whatever Jesus said must be completely alien to the very culture in which he grew up and lived. While most scholars are seeking to better understand Jesus in the midst of his Jewish culture, the Jesus Seminar wants to rip him completely out of his historical and cultural Jewish context. Apparently, Jesus of Nazareth couldn’t have said anything remotely Jewish! (It’s noteworthy none of the scholarship of Jesus Seminar fellows includes extensive study of first century Jewish culture.)

Not only must Jesus be completely non-Jewish in what he said, but they also claim that if there’s any statement by Jesus in the Gospels that was later used widely by Christians, that statement could not have been authentically spoken by Jesus! Astoundingly, we’re to accept that the only genuine statements of Jesus were the ones that made so little impact on his hearers they never repeated them. Any principle that was worthy of being incorporated into the thinking and vocabulary of Jesus’ followers must have been invented by them—it couldn’t possibly reflect the original teachings of Jesus.

This use of a “criterion of dissimilarity” is nonsensical; it’s not used this way in evaluating any other ancient documents. One would never reject a quote of Socrates because it reflected the Greek culture of his day or because it was picked up and reiterated by his followers. By using such criteria the Jesus Seminar is disqualifying everything but a Jesus who has no connection whatsoever with either his culture or his followers, and who spoke only in brief, provocative statements. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly who they claim to have discovered.

A “hermeneutic of suspicion”
By a “hermeneutic of suspicion” what they mean is that the canonical Gospels are guilty until proven innocent. Everything in them is automatically doubted and only what can be verified (using the criteria of the Jesus Seminar) is accepted. Again, such a standard isn’t used for any other ancient document or even for any other religious text. This standard is arbitrary and aberrant.

Faulty voting procedure
Even if all of the Jesus Seminar’s criteria were sound, their voting methodology renders the results essentially meaningless. For instance, in their evaluation of the Parable of the Two Sons (found in Matthew 21:28-31), 58% of the Seminar fellows voted red or pink, indicating they thought the parable to be definitely or likely authentic. But the Jesus Seminar printed this passage in grey, meaning it is probably not authentic. Why? “A substantial number of gray and black votes [which I assume totaled 42%] pulled the weighted average into the gray category.”

Let’s give the Seminar the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say the full remaining 42% of the members voted grey. And let’s say both the red votes and the pink votes were each less than 42% (for instance, hypothetically, 30% red and 28% pink). This would make grey the “winner” in a sense, but to mark the passage as grey would be badly misleading. It’s misleading to mark the passage as unlikely because a majority of the Seminar members thought the passage was at least likely (if not certain) to have been spoken by Jesus. Do you see why this voting process is faulty?

The problem is that when people see a particular outcome, they tend to assume it’s the consensus of the Seminar members. (Or even worse they think it’s the consensus of scholars in general.) If a verse is in red, we think the Seminar members agreed that Jesus actually said these words; if the words are in black, then the members must have all decided they’re not genuine. But actually each one of these conclusions was more like a political compromise; they are results that don’t accurately reflect the real views of anyone. For most of these passages there were Seminar members who voted for each color. As it stands, the published results—though colorful!—don’t really tell us anything (except possibly the views of Robert Funk and the other leaders of the Seminar).

(The Seminar also relied, to a shocking extent, on the Gospel of Thomas. This overwhelming reliance concerned many of their colleagues, Christian and non-Christian. I briefly discussed the Gospel of Thomas here.)

imagesThe Jesus Seminar is the most well-known, and probably the best, critical challenge of the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. It has enjoyed an unprecedented amount of media coverage, but has made little or no lasting impact in the world of serious scholarship concerning the historical Jesus. Because they took highly controversial claims and established them as their beginning standards and principles, the resulting, skewed outcomes simply reflect their own circular reasoning and remain unconvincing to most scholars. They stacked the deck by insisting ahead of time on a Jesus divorced from both his culture and the movement he inspired, and then enthusiastically announced this is the Jesus they had “discovered.” Their process is not unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who went verse by verse through the Bible, simply changing anything that didn’t fit their preconceived ideas to produce their “New World Translation.”

Practically all Jesus scholars still accept the New Testament Gospels as generally reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings (even if many of these scholars don’t believe these Gospels to be infallible, inspired Scripture). So what do these Gospel accounts reliably tell us about Jesus? We’ll explore this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels? [see above]

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

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Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

If you read our last post, you saw why the early Christians accepted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as authentic. But we also hear people talk about the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Peter,” and the “Gospel of James.” (These writings and others like them are often called the “Gnostic gospels.” I’ll explain why below.) Some even refer to these as “alternative” or “competing” gospels of Jesus. What do we make of these writings? Why did the early Christians reject these other accounts of Jesus?

The simplest answer is that the New Testament Gospels met all the criteria of the early Christians, and these other self-claimed gospels did not. Let’s look again at what these criteria were:

When was it written?
Let’s put this into historical perspective. Jesus’ ministry took place either in the late 20s or early 30s of the 1st century. The Christian apostle Paul wrote his letters from the 40s to the 60s. Most scholars agree that Mark’s Gospel was written by the 60s, that Matthew’s and Luke’s were written by the 70s (although many scholars date all three much earlier), and John’s Gospel was written by the 90s.

The Gnostic gospels, on the other hand, were written much later. While a few have tried to argue otherwise, there is no historical or literary evidence placing the writing of any of these other gospels before the middle of the 2nd century. This means they couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses and their authors couldn’t even have directly interviewed eyewitnesses. Their late dates call their authenticity into question.

By the time these gospels were written there was already widespread agreement among Christian leaders as to which writings they considered Scripture. This is especially true concerning the Gospel accounts of Christ. Despite the rhetoric of some sensationalistic critics, these Gnostic “gospels” weren’t considered by the earliest Christians as alternative or competing gospels because they didn’t exist yet.

Who wrote it?
This may surprise some readers, but all scholars agree that none of these later Gnostic gospels were written by the people they claim to be written by. The Gospel of Thomas was not written by Thomas, the Gospel of Peter wasn’t written by Peter, etc. These gospels are what we call “pseudonymous,” they were written in the name of someone famous (even someone long dead). This was done intentionally in the ancient world to attract a wider reading.

While Gnostics and other groups followed such a practice, the early Christians viewed these falsely claimed letters with disdain. These believers saw this attribution to famous dead people as inauthentic and grounds for immediate rejection. Not only did they not know who wrote the books or what connection they had with the apostles, but they felt the books were misleading and deceitful. Because Jesus was a literal, historical person, and because they claimed the events recorded in the Gospels actually took place, they were very serious about the trustworthy nature of the accounts of Jesus’ life and words.

Had it been widely accepted and used by the churches?
These other gospels fare poorly on this question as well. They weren’t old enough to have been around for the formative years of the early Christian movement. The churches simply didn’t use them, even as merely inspirational works. These gospels were propagated by groups of people outside of the Christian churches (more on this below). Not only did no one know who wrote these gospels, but the Christians viewed much of their content as strange and not in harmony with the apostolic teaching at the heart of the Christian faith. It’s not just that they weren’t widely accepted by the churches, they were consistently panned and rejected. Thankfully, we have writings from Christian leaders of this period showing their quick and decisive rejection of these so-called gospels. They were aware of the “gospels” now loudly hailed by a few speculative critics; they were not impressed.

To understand these later gospels, it’s helpful to know a bit about the ancient religious system known to us today as Gnosticism. This religion gets its name from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” These people sought secret or hidden knowledge that was supposedly only known to a select few, so they were called “Gnostics.” Through their writings we know what some of this “secret knowledge” was.

The Gnostics were heavily influenced by some forms of Greek philosophy. They viewed the spiritual or immaterial to be pure, and the physical to be innately corrupt. They believed the physical world was created by an evil god (the god of the Jews), and that salvation could only be attained through secret knowledge. These secrets were said to reveal how to escape the prison of physical, bodily existence. Some Gnostics taught that Jesus was an “emanation” of God who came to teach them this secret knowledge. They denied the physical existence and humanity of Jesus.

It’s important to know that Christianity was rooted in 1st century Jewish beliefs. The beliefs of the Gnostics were hostile to both Jewish religious tradition and early Christian beliefs. They borrowed some of the terms Jews and Christians used, but redefined them according to their own unique purposes. One example of this is the way they “borrowed” Jesus. Similar to New Age proponents who speak of a Christ-consciousness but don’t believe in the biblical Christ, these Gnostics adapted the story of Jesus to fit their new religion.

Scholars agree that the Gnostic faith developed during the 2nd century. Gnosticism didn’t exist during the 1st century, so there’s no way for there to have been Gnostic gospels written that early. This was a religion that developed independently of Christianity, but sought to draw new followers from the Christian churches. Because Christians put great stock in the teachings of the apostles, these Gnostics wrote “gospels” of Jesus that claimed to be written by Peter, James, Thomas, etc. Of course, the fact they weren’t written in the 1st century was a problem, but they also depicted a distinctly Gnostic Jesus and worldview, which were incompatible with the existing beliefs of the Christians. Because of this, these so-called gospels were universally rejected.

Gospel of Thomas
Let’s use the Gospel of Thomas as an example. The Gospel of Thomas was rediscovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. (Because of this, some people refer to the “Nag Hammadi gospels.”) It’s not what we would ordinarily think of as a “gospel.” It doesn’t tell the story of Jesus, but merely records things he was supposed to have said. Much of the material is clearly Gnostic in nature. The book begins:

These are the secret words that the living Jesus spoke and Judas, even Thomas, wrote.

The book goes on to tell us of the secret or hidden teachings of Jesus. These teachings are meant only for the spiritually elite, not for the common people. Instead of being taught to have faith, the reader is urged to discover the hidden interpretations that will reveal the secret knowledge necessary for salvation.

In the midst of this, we find statements that are strikingly similar to what we read in the biblical Gospels. Does this mean the Gospel of Thomas is actually from the 1st century, maybe even older than the New Testament Gospels? A few (very few) scholars would say yes, but most other scholars—Christian and non-Christian—see these critics as clutching at straws. The evidence is just too convincing otherwise.

We have no historical evidence placing the Gospel of Thomas before the mid-2nd century. And the Gospel of Thomas includes quotes of Jesus that are in common with all four of the biblical Gospels. Not only that, but it quotes from later variations of these Gospels, not the earliest readings. The Gospel of Thomas also references works we know weren’t written until the 2nd century. And even when it quotes the Bible, it often twists the statements of Jesus into Gnostic variations. Despite the efforts of a few who try to find a 1st century fragment within the Gospel of Thomas, the vast majority of scholars accept that it couldn’t have been written before around 170 CE (or AD).

Conspiracy theories
I can’t help but comment on the sensationalistic writings of Dan Brown and his ilk. Even though his writings are fictional, many surprisingly still labor under the false assumption his books are carefully researched. Nothing could be further from the truth, as countless reviews have demonstrated. For instance, Brown claims the New Testament Gospels were later revisions and the Gnostic gospels were the earlier writings. This turns all of our historical evidence and scholarly consensus on its head. It would be laughable if it wasn’t taken seriously by some.

Brown also claims the Gnostic gospels defended a human Jesus from the Christians who wanted to turn him into a god. We’ll explore in a future post just when the Christians started believing in Jesus’ divinity, but Brown shockingly gets completely backward the nature of his own cherished alternative gospels. It was the New Testament Gospels who portrayed a Christ who was not only divine but also profoundly human. And it was the later, Gnostic gospels who denied the humanity of Jesus, and insisted he was purely divine! Again, such subterfuge could be humorous if not for the surprising influence it has somehow garnered.

Lastly, Brown repeatedly claims these Gnostic gospel-writers were seeking to defend the rights of women and somehow protect the “feminine divine.” I’ll quote the end of the Gospel of Thomas, and you decide whether this gospel intends to protect the feminine divine (and whether there’s any reason to accept this as an authentic statement of Jesus):

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”

Jesus said: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Some may be asking, ‘Why are you talking about Dan Brown of all people?’ Sadly, far too many believe that even though his stories are fictional, his historical research is legitimate. This is definitely not the case. Brown is an extreme example, but there are other highly speculative, sensationalistic sources out there that contradict what we know from history. I challenge everyone to not just assume these kinds of books (or internet sites) are correct; do the homework for yourself. If you’d like, I can recommend good books representing different perspectives on these issues.

These later gospels give us a lot of helpful insight into the nature of 2nd century Gnostic beliefs, but they don’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus. They were written too late by unknown authors with an alternative agenda. The early Christians consistently rejected these gospels, and for good reason. So this brings us back to the New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus. Now we know why these Gospels were accepted by the early followers of Jesus. But does this mean they’re historically reliable? How sure can we be about what Jesus did and said? We’ll explore these questions next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”? [see above]

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

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Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

As promised, this week we begin looking at our historical sources for the life and teachings of Jesus. Which ones do we trust, and which ones should we reject? To help us understand why followers of Christ refused to accept some gospels we need to understand why they embraced the ones they did. Once we’re familiar with the standards they used in evaluating the Gospels that became part of the New Testament, we’ll be able to better consider why they rejected the “alternative” gospels.

(A good preliminary question is: How can we even know we’re reading what they originally wrote in these Gospels? I’ve addressed this previously in the post: The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote? The New Testament is actually the most well-attested document we have from antiquity.)

Historical context
You may have heard the claim that the Roman emperor Constantine is the one who decided which books would be included in the Bible and which ones would not. This idea may have spiced up a fictional novel or two, but it has no basis in reality. The truth is by the second century church leaders were already listing the books they considered to be Scripture. These lists aren’t exactly the same, but they’re strikingly similar. Christians immediately accepted most of the New Testament books as divinely inspired, including the letters of Paul and—most relevant to our current study—the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now we’re not yet trying to determine whether these Gospels were actually divinely produced or not, just that the early Christians accepted them as the definitive accounts of Jesus. I should clarify there were a few books (especially 2 Peter and 3 John) that had to be discussed awhile before they were universally accepted. This hesitation seemed to be mostly due to a lack of familiarity with certain books in some geographical regions. By the fourth century there was widespread agreement among church leaders as to which books were authentically biblical. When leaders later agreed in various councils on a list of scriptural books, they were simply affirming what had been commonly accepted for a long time. Most important for our discussion is the observation that the four biblical Gospels were never in doubt and were accepted from the very beginning.

So why were these books embraced by Christian believers? What criteria were used to evaluate the authenticity of Gospel accounts of Jesus?

When was it written?
The early Christians wanted to rely on the earliest, most reliable accounts of Jesus. This makes perfect sense to us today. The four biblical Gospels were all written in the first century. Everyone agrees that John’s Gospel was the last written. Most scholars believe Mark’s was first, with Matthew and Luke following soon after. There is compelling evidence suggesting Mark’s Gospel was written as early as the 40s AD, which would have been very soon after Jesus’ death and the early spread of the Christian faith. Many scholars don’t accept this date, but most feel Mark was written by the 60s and all agree his Gospel was finished by the 70s AD. If an alleged account of Jesus was written too late to be credible, it would have been viewed with suspicion. The New Testament Gospels passed the test of being written early enough to be authentic.

Who wrote it?
The early Christians were very concerned with how apostolic the writings were. Remember the apostles were men Jesus had personally commissioned to be his formal representatives or ambassadors. They were to speak his words with his authority. We know this understanding of the prominent role of the apostles of Christ goes back to the earliest followers of Jesus after his death and resurrection. So these believers wanted to accept only Gospel accounts and letters written by the apostles or people closely associated with them. And the content had to have the ring of authenticity as apostolic writing.

This doesn’t mean they were desiring only books written by the “superstars.” They weren’t demanding the sensational, but the authentic. We can see this by looking at the accepted authors for the four biblical Gospels. Only John was well-known as an apostle, although he had nothing like the notoriety of a Peter. Matthew was also an apostle (and both he and John were eyewitnesses of the events of which they wrote), but he was neither famous nor prominent. He didn’t have the name recognition that someone would want if they were marketing a Gospel of Christ. And Mark and Luke were not widely known at all. They were both closely associated with apostles, and were known by the churches where they had ministered, but their names were definitely not sensational attention-getters.

The relative obscurity of these Gospel authors testify to their authenticity. There would have been no reason to attribute these writings to these little-known authors unless they actually wrote these Gospels. And one of the fastest ways to get your writing rejected was to attribute it to another (usually famous) author. These kinds of writing are called “pseudonymous,” and were considered acceptable by most people in the first few centuries after Christ—but not by Christians considering whether a writing should be accepted as definitive Scripture. If they became suspicious a writing was not really written by the alleged author, it would be immediately disqualified.

This doesn’t mean a letter or gospel written in someone else’s name couldn’t be produced with good intentions (possibly to honor an admired apostle), or that it couldn’t contain any material that might be spiritually helpful. But these early believers refused to accept pseudonymous writings as part of the New Testament Scriptures. The biblical Gospels were not only written early enough to be authentic, but the early Christians verified them as being written by men who were either apostles or closely associated with the apostles.

Had it been widely accepted and used by the churches?
Were many churches, over a broad geographical span, actually using this writing? Were church leaders universally accepting this writing as apostolic? Were pastoral leaders invested in studying and teaching this writing? Did it have the ring of apostolic truth to them? Was there general agreement that the content of this writing was in harmony with other accepted apostolic teaching?

These questions were commonly asked. While some books, such as 2 Peter and Revelation, took longer to reach this kind of universal usage (which is why their inclusion in the New Testament was discussed longer than the rest), the four Gospels were widely used and accepted from extremely early in the history of the Christian faith. There was never any controversy among Christians as to whether Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should be accepted as authentic, reliable (even inspired) accounts of Jesus Christ.

We haven’t established yet whether we should accept these New Testament Gospels as historically reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. But we have seen the reasons why the early Christians accepted the four biblical Gospels as genuine. So why didn’t they accept other writings that claimed to be gospel accounts of Jesus? What were the problems with these “alternative” gospels? We’ll look at this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels? [see above]

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

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Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

In our search for the historical Jesus, we’re first examining the most broad challenges of the critics. These claims—if true—would be devastating to the biblical Christian faith, and so we want to consider them carefully. Last week, we saw strong evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person. Except for a few on the radical fringe, all Jesus scholars—Christians and non-Christians—accept the historicity of Jesus as firmly established.

This week, we’re looking at another common claim. From time to time you’ll hear someone say: “The pagan religions at that time had many ‘Christ’ myths. The early Christians copied the story of a resurrected god from these other religions.” Is this true? Let’s find out.

Consider the source
We should first notice from where these claims are (and are not) coming. We don’t hear these ideas from reputable scholars; we mostly find them touted by people who aren’t widely respected in the academic community. This should give us pause. If the most respected critics of Christianity don’t avail themselves of this claim, is there maybe something faulty with it?

Examples from history (and today)
Sometimes religions do borrow from one another. Many years ago, I attended a community function in the Bay area of California. This event was held at a local Buddhist “church.” I was more interested in this Buddhist church than I was in the event itself! I was surprised by the many similarities to Christianity I saw there. These Buddhists had “bishops” who were referred to as “Reverend” and who dressed in vestments as one would find in a liturgical church. Their literature spoke of “salvation” and “accepting the principles of Buddhism into your heart.” Apparently, they thought using these traditionally Christian trappings and terminologies would help them reach people who were culturally accustomed to them.

In the early 4th century, the Roman church leaders decided to designate December 25 as the birthdate of Christ. Many historians believe this date was originally a pagan holiday, but that the Roman church “converted” it. Our Christmas holiday today contains elements that predate the celebration of Jesus’ birth, such as yule logs, giving gifts and decorating trees. Many scholars also believe much of the grandeur of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches is partly the result of early attempts to compete with the pageantry of pagan temples and ceremonies. So copying from one religion to another does happen . . . but did it happen with the story of Christ?

A timeline problem
We can find evidence of copying between Christianity and other religions. The question is: Who copied from whom? For instance, if you do some searching, you can find descriptions of the newborn, Hindu god Krishna receiving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The only problem is these stories developed in just the last few years. Because this happened so recently, it’s very easy to determine that some Krishna devotees copied from the stories of Jesus’ birth.

So did the early Christians do the same thing to enhance the image of Jesus, or did the pagan religions copy from Christianity? When we examine the historical sources, the pattern becomes very clear. All of the pagan similarities to the Christian faith were recorded after Christianity became widely followed, not before. For example, the worship of Mithra was a popular religion in the ancient Roman empire. We can find in descriptions of their beliefs where Mithra is called the “Son of God” and the “Light of the World,” and where it’s claimed he was born on December 25, was buried in a rock tomb and then came to life three days later. This sounds much like Christianity, doesn’t it? But these descriptions were written hundreds of years after the Gospel stories about Jesus were written. What did the story of Mithra sound like in the first century?

Mithra was born (not resurrected) when he emerged from a rock. (No date is given for his birth.) He was carrying a knife and a torch, and wearing a Phrygian cap. He battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, which was thought to be the first act of creation. Mithra slew the bull, and this became the ground of life for the human race. This may remind us of ancient mythology, but it has no similarity at all to the story of Jesus Christ.

If you do the homework, you’ll find the same to be true of other alleged precursors of the Christ story. In every case, the seemingly uncanny similarities to Christianity were introduced after the widespread propagation of the Christian faith. We’re historically very confident the pagan religions copied elements of the story of Jesus, not the other way around.

“Similarities” that aren’t really similar
Some critics claim there’s a long pattern, predating Jesus, of gods who die and are resurrected. When pushed for examples, they appeal to fertility cults where the sun “dies” in winter and “rises again” in the spring—only to die again the following winter (and so on, and so on . . .). This bears little similarity to claims that a literal, historical person was publicly executed, came back to life and was worshiped as divine by his followers. These critics can’t show any direct parallels because there are none. These accounts are completely dissimilar. This seems almost to be a desperate clutching of straws for people who want to find an alternative explanation . . . any alternative explanation . . . for the story of Jesus Christ.

Hardly any non-Christian scholars question the historical existence of Jesus or try to attribute the unique aspects of his story to early Christians copying from pagan religions. They don’t do this because it’s just not good scholarship. So where does this leave us in our quest? We can be confident Jesus existed at the time and place the Gospel stories describe, and we can’t dismiss the accounts of Jesus as stories his followers borrowed from other religions. Where do we go next? Next week, we’ll begin looking at the original sources that claim to tell us about Jesus. Which accounts can we trust, which ones do we reject, and why? We’ll discuss this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions? [see above]

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

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Did Jesus really exist?

Was Jesus Christ a real, historical person? Did he actually exist? We begin with the most broad of questions regarding Jesus, and it’s one we need to answer. If the answer is no, then the implications are clear. If Jesus is merely a mythical figure—like a unicorn or the tooth fairy—then his story may be inspiring, but he’s not worthy of our faith. A fictitious Jesus can’t do anything about our spiritual condition, he can’t provide a way for us to enter into relationship with God, and he’s unable to resurrect us from the grave. If Jesus was not a real, historical person, then our search ends here and biblical Christianity is a lie. But if the evidence shows the historicity of Jesus, then we can move on from here to explore other questions about him.

In approaching this question, we must first consider the historical context of the first century. There were no hospitals at the time and no birth certificates to be filed somewhere. They also didn’t have the kind of media we do that report widely on all the latest trends and happenings. Today, we expect mountains of documenting evidence for practically everything, but most of our knowledge of ancient people—even very famous ones—comes from relatively few sources.

For example, Tiberius was emperor of Rome from 14-37 CE (or AD), which includes the time when Jesus would have been crucified. This man was Caesar of the whole Roman world, and yet we have only four sources from which to draw the details of his reign. And only one of these sources was actually alive during the time of Tiberius. So our expectations need to match the historical realities. We just don’t have a lot of historical references to even famous people from ancient times.

What kinds of sources do we have to support the historical existence of Jesus? Let’s break them down.

Jewish sources
A very important Jewish source is the historian Josephus. His references are significant for a few reasons. He wrote within the first century (his Antiquities was written around 94 CE). He was a first century Jew, and so he understood the historical and cultural settings. And his subject matter was not primarily concerning the Christian religion. His comments about Jesus are only brief references—not his main point—and so they are written in a neutral manner that appeals to us today.

In Antiquities, he mentions Jesus twice. Later copies of the first reference were corrupted but, thankfully, scholars have determined the text that most agree is genuinely from Josephus:

Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared.

There is wording here that no Christian of the period would have used. They would never describe Jesus as merely a “wise man.” Neither would they say that Jesus was “a worker of amazing deeds.” This could apply equally to a sorcerer, which is precisely what their Jewish opponents accused Jesus of being. Christians at this time emphasized Jesus as the Savior, not as a teacher. There is no mention by Josephus of the resurrection, and Christians of this period would never have left this out. And the terminology “tribe of the Christians” was not a Christian expression; however, it fits the context of Josephus quite well. For these reasons, this passage from Josephus is widely regarded as original.

(Remember, we’re not trying to find historical references that affirm the Christian faith in its entirety. We’re only trying to see whether there are ancient sources that confirm Jesus existed, that he was a real, historical person.)

The second reference to Jesus by Josephus is in a section where he’s describing the actions of the high priest Ananus:

He assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Notice the almost casual way Josephus uses Jesus to explain to his readers who James was. This kind of off-hand reference is very valuable to historians. It shows that not only did Jesus exist, he was well known by this time.

Much later, the Babylonian Talmud (dated between 400-500 CE) includes a number of not incredibly kind references to Jesus. Here are some examples:

Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray.

It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”

Among the many references are what have come to be known as the “ben Pandera” stories (meaning “son of Pandera”). These describe Jesus as being the illegitimate son of Pandera, a Roman mercenary “who begot a child with Joseph’s adulterous wife, Mary, during her menstrual period.”

It may seem strange to use these references to support the existence of Jesus because they’re so obviously hostile. Of course, this fits what we know of this period of history. Many of the Jews at this time were hostile to Christianity and to the person of Jesus. But what’s interesting is that even in their extreme opposition to Jesus they never question his existence, or even that he somehow worked miracles. These accusations actually serve as kind of a backhanded confirmation Jesus existed, that he performed wonders, and even that he was widely reputed to have been born of a virgin.

Now, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and claiming these wonders and the virgin birth as true just yet. (We’ll discuss these things in a future study.) But the vehemence of the opposition to these ideas does show these were well-established claims. The intensity of the hostility toward Jesus makes us wonder why they didn’t simply question Jesus’ existence, or argue that he never performed miracles at all. Apparently, this was not an option for these Jewish critics.

Roman sources
In his Annals, Tacitus describes the rapidly spreading rumors that Nero himself had burned Rome, and Nero’s attempts to deflect the public’s rage away from himself (written around 116 CE):

But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called Christians. The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular. Therefore, first those admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race. Derision was added to their end: they were covered with the skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were crucified and when the day ended they were burned as torches. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle and gave a show in his circus, mixing with the people in charioteer’s clothing, or standing in his racing chariot. Therefore a feeling of pity arose despite a guilt which deserved the most exemplary punishment, because it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but for the ferocity of one man.

This passage again shows Jesus referred to as an historical figure, and it’s accepted as authentic by all scholars. (There are also references to Jesus by Pliny the Younger and possibly Suetonius.)

Greek sources
Lucian of Samosata, in The Death of Peregrinus, 165 CE, speaking of Peregrinus’ experiences among the Christians, writes:

He was second only to that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.

And, in another place, writing of Christians:

Having convinced themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most willingly give themselves to it. Moreover, that first lawgiver of theirs persuaded them that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshiping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.

You can see in these quotes how even someone hostile to the Christian faith can provide valuable testimony of the historical existence of Jesus Christ.

Around 175 CE, Celsus wrote True Doctrine, an entire work dedicated to opposing the Christian faith. Around 250, the Christian scholar Origen responded with Against Celsus, in which he answers Celsus point by point. Celsus seemed to draw heavily from the current Jewish critics of Jesus. He ridicules Jesus for being born of a poor family from a poor village. He claims Jesus fabricated the story of his virgin birth, and that he was actually the son of an adulterous woman (who had been driven out by her carpenter husband) and a soldier named Panthera. He says Jesus learned magical arts in Egypt, and that these powers made him so prideful he claimed to be God.

The majority of Celsus’ arguments against Christianity are philosophical, not historical. While again we see someone trying desperately to put Jesus’ history in a negative light, for some reason he never challenges that history. And this makes me ask: Why not? We’ve seen just a few examples of the fierce early opposition to Jesus, yet not one critic ever questioned his existence. It seems they realized the historicity of Jesus was unassailable.

Today, we see much the same thing. Hardly any scholars question the historical existence of Jesus. The few who do are generally viewed as a kind of radical fringe in Jesus studies. Just as we sometimes run across irrational Christians who can make other believers look silly, so non-Christian scholars seem embarrassed by this tiny, but loud, contingent who irrationally deny the historical existence of Jesus. The overwhelming consensus of the broadest sweep of Jesus scholars is that the historicity of Jesus is unquestionable.

You should also notice we’ve quoted from Jewish sources, Roman sources, and Greek sources, but no Christian sources. In limiting ourselves this way, we’ve actually been more narrow in our study than any Jesus scholar would be. Even non-Christian critics, who don’t accept the New Testament Gospels as divine Scripture, believe these early writings about Jesus reveal an actual historical person. But, as we’ve shown above, we have plenty of evidence even if we don’t consider the early Christian documents.

So, to answer the question we began with: Yes, we do know that Jesus really existed. If anyone challenges whether Jesus existed in history, they just show themselves to be ignorant of current scholarship. But were parts of Jesus’ story “borrowed” from other religions? We’ll look at this challenge next week.

Note: to keep these posts as readable as possible, I’m not including footnotes showing my sources for this information. I will happily provide citations for anyone who wants them.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist? [see above]

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

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