If you haven’t heard yet, Richard Dawkins was scheduled to speak at Berkeley. The university changed their mind because of Dawkins comments about Islam. I guess they don’t care what he has said about Christianity. Read more here.
How did Jesus view the Scriptures? Obviously, there was no New Testament at the time he walked on the earth. The structure of this argument may be formalized as follows: Read a fuller form from the book In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture here:
(1) The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence
(2) The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate/the Jewish Messiah. God authenticated Jesus’ teaching/ claim to divinity by His miracles/His messianic speaking authority, His messianic actions, and His resurrection .
(3) Hence, Jesus is God incarnate.
(4) Jesus (i.e., God incarnate) taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.
(5) Therefore, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is divinely inspired.
In this post, I will expand on #4 and #5 with the help of Daniel L. Akin
“In the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), Jesus spoke on the theme of God’s kingdom. Matthew 5:17–20, in particular, serves as the introduction to the six great antitheses of 5:21–48. They also explain how we can live out the beatitudes (5:3–12) and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (5:13–16). Matthew 5:17 reveals Jesus’ high view of Scripture: “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (HCSB). Clearly, what is said here pertains to the Old Testament Scriptures. Nevertheless, what Jesus affirmedabout the Old Testament He also promised about the New Testament. Jesus said:
“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you” (John 16:12–15 HCSB).
Several points should be made about Jesus’ view and use of Scripture. First, Jesus introduced teachings that were new and striking. Indeed, as John 7:46 states, “No man ever spoke like this!” (HCSB). Some may have concluded that His teaching constituted a decisive break with the Old Testament Scriptures. That is certainly the judgment of some scholars today. “Not so,” says Jesus. “Do not think [or consider] that I came to destroy [annul, abrogate, disintegrate, demolish] the law.” J. A. Alexander noted that the idea is “the destruction of a whole by the complete separation of its parts, as when a house is taken down by being taken to pieces.”7 Jesus said He did not come to tear apart or dismantle the law and prophets (a reference to the OT Scriptures of His day). He did not come to destroy (repeated for emphasis) but to fulfill. Note that the antithesis is not between “abolish” and “keep” but between “abolish” and “fulfill.” The Scriptures find their fulfillment, their intended purpose, in the life and ministry of Messiah Jesus. He is the one to whom they point. He is the one they predict and anticipate.
Second, Jesus provided not only an emphatic denial but also a positive declaration about the purpose for His coming—He came to fulfill the Scriptures. He came, as the Son, to complete what had previously been delivered in bits and pieces by the Old Testament prophets (see Heb 1:1–2). To set Scripture aside was never His agenda. To bring them to fulfillment and fruition was why He came. Don Carson was correct when he said:
Jesus fulfills the entire Old Testament in many ways. Because they point toward him, he has certainly not come to abolish them. Rather, he has come to fulfill them in a rich diversity of ways. . . . Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the Old Testament, but in terms of bringing to fruition that toward which it points. Thus the law and the prophets, far from being abolished, find their valid continuity in terms of their outworking in Jesus. The detailed prescriptions of the Old Testament may well be superseded, because whatever is prophetic must be in some sense provisional. But whatever is prophetic likewise discovers its legitimate continuity in the happy arrival of that toward which it has pointed.
That our Lord would have affirmed that “all Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation”—which concludes the BF&M (2000) statement on Scripture—can hardly be questioned:
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me (John 5:39 NKJV).
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Mos Bes and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the leScriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:25–27 NKJV).
Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures (Luke 24:44–45 NKJV).”-Daniel L. Akin, Jesus, Evangelicals, and the Bible, from Defending the Faith, Engaging the Bible, Essays Honoring Russ L. Bush, pgs 15-16.
Over the years when I have taught on a topic from the Jewish Scriptures, many Christians have said to me, “Oh, so this is the Old Testament.” This basically means “So why are we reading this. After all, we are New Testament Christians.” I have already discussed Are Christians Naively Marcionite in Their Theology and Practice? So when I teach, I now say we are going to be looking at the First Testament, and then we may get to the Second Testament. This helps Christians see the Bible as one, continuous story. And for that matter, how about what Chris Wright says here:
“The most important reason, however, why we need to really get to know the Old Testament is because it was the Bible of Jesus. Of course, we read about Jesus in the New Testament. But Jesus himself never read the New Testament! As noted earlier, for him, the Scriptures were the books that now form our Old Testament. And Jesus knew them very thoroughly indeed. He would have learned them first from Mary and Joseph, like any Jewish boy of his times. By the age of twelve he knew them so well he could sit in the Jerusalem temple for days discussing them with the adults who were theologians and scholars. Jewish boys at the time of Jesus used to memorize whole books of the Old Testament. If they were good at it (as Jesus clearly was), they would know whole sections (the Torah, books of the prophets) and qualify as a “rabbi” — teacher. And that’s what they called Jesus. He knew the Scriptures as well as he knew his carpenter’s tools. When the time came for Jesus to begin his public ministry, after his baptism in the Jordan by John, he went into the wilderness alone for forty days and wrestled with the immense task that lay ahead of him. What was he doing all that time? Well, when Satan tempted him to take a different course from the one he knew he must take in obedience to his Father, he answered three times with quotations from the Scriptures. All three of the texts that Jesus quoted came from Deuteronomy 6 and 8.
That suggests that he was thinking deeply about the implications of that whole section of Deuteronomy (1 – 11) for himself and his mission. And all through his ministry, right up to the cross and after his resurrection, Jesus insisted that the Scriptures must be fulfilled. His whole understanding of himself — his life, his mission, his future — was rooted in his reading of the Scriptures, the Old Testament. Have you ever gone to the Holy Land or wanted to go there? Some people go there on pilgrimage because, they say (or the advertising brochures say), it will bring them closer to Jesus by walking in the land where he walked, seeing the hills he knew, sitting by the sea of Galilee, and so on. Well, it certainly does bring the Bible to life when you visit the land where so much of the action took place. Take the opportunity if you get it. But if you really want to get to know Jesus, to understand what filled his mind and directed his intentions, here’s a better way than going on pilgrimage to Israel (and it will cost you a lot less!): read the Bible Jesus read. For these were the stories Jesus heard as a child. These were the songs Jesus sang. These were the scrolls that were read every week in his synagogue. These were the prophetic visions that had given hope to his people for generations. This is where Jesus discerned the great plan and purpose of God for his people Israel and through them for the world. This is where Jesus found the source texts that shaped who he was and what he had come to do.”–How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth by Christopher J. H. Wright
Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus (AD 40 to 60 ). They are also the earliest letters we have for the Christology of Jesus.
According to Bart Ehrman,
“There are seven letters that virtually all scholars agree were written by Paul himself: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The “undispusted” letters are similar in terms of writing style, vocabulary, and theology. In addition, the issues that they address can plausibly be situated in the early Christian movement of the 40’s and 50’s of the Common Era, when Paul was active as an apostle and missionary”- Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 288.
Richard Bauckham and Paul’s Christology
In his book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham has asserted that while some Jewish writers in the late Second Temple period did utilize some of the Greek metaphysical language, their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature- what divinity is- but a notion of the divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. Bauckham suggests that in studying the relationship between Jewish monotheism and early Christology, it is imperative to understand the religious sects during Second Temple Judaism. The one God of Second Temple Jewish belief was identifiable by His covenant relationship with Israel. Various New Testament scriptures demonstrate that while the early Christians used titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time adhered to the monotheistic tradition of first- century Judaism.
While Greeks focused on philosophical matters of the nature of the divine, Jewish monotheism was more concerned with God’s divine identity. The God of Second Temple Judaism was identifiable by three unique attributes: (1) The God of Israel is the sole Creator of all things (Is. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Ps 86:10; Hos. 13:4; (2) The God of Israel is the sovereign Ruler of all things (Dan. 4:34-35); (3) The God of Israel is also the only the only being worthy of being worshiped (Deut. 6:13; Ps. 97:7; Is. 45:23; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).
Jesus’ divine identity is affirmed by the fact that He was seen by his followers as having the same attributes as God. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus comes to participate as God’s sovereign Ruler over all things (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:44;26:64; Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:55-56; 1 Cor.15:27-28; Phil. 2:6-11; Eph. 1:21-22; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Jesus is seen as the object of worship (Matt. 14:33; 28: 9,17; Jn. 5:23; 20:28; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-12). He is also the recipient of praise (Matt. 21:16-16; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 1:12; Rev. 5:8-14) and prayer (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17,21; 22:16,19;1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor.12:8). Jesus is also the Creator of all things (Heb. 1:2; Jn. 1: 1-3; Col. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 8:6).
In this article by Bauckham called Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity, he says the following about one of the earliest statements about Paul’s Christology in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6:
“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
The context of this passage in Paul’s discussion of the issue of eating meat offered to idols and participation in temple banquets supplies its clear monotheistic concern. The issue is the highly traditional Jewish monotheistic one of loyalty to the only true God in a context of pagan polytheistic worship. What Paul does is to maintain the Jewish monotheistic concern in a Christian interpretation for which loyalty to the only true God entails loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. In the first place we should note the statement which Paul takes up in verse 4, in order to explain it in the following verses: ‘we know that there is no idol in the world and that there is no God except one (oujdei;” qeo;” eij mh; ei|”).’ No doubt, the statement comes from the Corinthians’ letter, but they may be citing back to Paul what he himself had taught them, and in any case the statement is a typically Jewish monotheistic one. The designation of other gods as ‘idols’ can, of course, only be Jewish.The statement is reminiscent of the very common Jewish monotheistic formula which claims that there is no other God besides YHWH,39 especially those versions of this formula which give it an explicitly cosmic context, like the ejn kovsmw/ (‘in the world’) of 1 Corinthians 8:4, which Paul echoes in the ei[te ejn oujranw’/ ei[te ejpi; gh’” (‘in heaven or on earth’) of the following verse, and especially also those versions of the formula which link it with an allusion to the Shema‘‘s assertion of the uniqueness of God. For example:
YHWH is God; there is no other besides him…. YHWH is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other (Deut 4:35, 39).
For there is no other besides the Lord, neither in heaven, nor on the earth, nor in the deepest places, nor in the one foundation (2 Enoch 47:3J).
There is an ancient saying about him: ‘He is one…. And there is no other’ (Pseudo-Orphica, lines 9-10, 17).
He is one, and besides him there is no other (Mark 12:32).
This sets the context of strict Jewish monotheistic belief within which Paul works in his discussion with the Corinthians that follows. He fully accepts the statement in verse 4 (though not, as becomes clear, the implications for behaviour which the Corinthians draw from it). But he goes on to give in verse 6 a fuller monotheistic formulation, which is remarkable in that, while it follows the structure of Jewish monotheistic assertions, it also incorporates Jesus Christ into the unique divine identity. This is probably Paul’s most explicit formulation of what we have called christological monotheism. That Paul has here produced a Christian version of the Shema‘ has now rightly been recognized quite widely,41 but the fully decisive way in which he has here included Jesus in the Jewish definition of the unique identity of the one God can be appreciated only in the light of the account of Jewish monotheism that we offered in the first section of this paper. In verse 5 Paul acknowledges the context of pagan polytheism against which the Jewish monotheism he continues to maintain is polemically opposed. His point is not to affirm the existence of many gods and many lords, and certainly not to affirm their existence as gods and lords, but to introduce the contrast between the allegiance of pagans to the many whom they call gods and lords and the exclusive, monotheistic loyalty of Christians, which is specified in verse 6 (‘but for us…’). He is, in fact, shifting the emphasis from the mere existence or otherwise of gods (which the Corinthians’ use of the statement quoted in verse 4 stressed) to the question of allegiance, devotion and worship. There is nothing alien to Jewish monotheism in this shift. The monotheism expressed in the Shema‘ is precisely a matter not merely of believing that only one God exists, but of according this God (‘YHWH our God’) the exclusive and whole-hearted devotion that his uniqueness requires. Hence it is entirely appropriate that it should be by means of a version of the Shema‘ that Paul in verse 6 formulates Christian monotheism. However, verse 5 prepares for this version of the Shema‘ also in another way. When Paul moves in this verse from calling the pagan deities ‘gods’ to calling them not only ‘gods’ but also ‘lords’ (kuvrioi), he introduces a term which was in fact used in many pagan cults, but he introduces it in order to provide a more complete contrast to the version of the Shema‘ which is to come in verse Whereas pagans profess allegiance to many gods.
If you aren’t familiar with Peter Enns, he is a Biblical scholar who has published quite a bit. I was first introduced to his work when I read the book, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology).
Here are some my thoughts on this post:
1.This isn’t anything new. Enns is a Biblical scholar and not an apologist. Enns has decided to give his own apologetic as to why he doesn’t like apologetics. So we see the self-defeating nature of such a post. Once again, we also see the unnecessary false dichotomies here. I saw the same things in the Penner/Craig discussion. I wrote about it here.
” Jesus said: ‘believe on the evidence of the miracles’ (John 14:11)
• When John the Baptist questioned if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus likewise appealed to the evidence of his works (cf. Matthew 11:4–6)
• Paul wrote of ‘defending and confirming the gospel’ (Philippians 1:7) • Paul ‘reasoned . . . explaining and proving’ (Acts 17:2–3)
• ‘Every Sabbath [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks . . . Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus’ (Acts 18:4; 19:8–9)
• Paul urges Christians to ‘stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults’ (1 Corinthians 14:20)
• Paul advises Christians: ‘Choose your words carefully and be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions’ (Colossians 4:6 CEV)
• Peter commands Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have . . . with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) The Greek translated as ‘give an answer’ in 1 Peter 3:15 is apologia – from which we get the word ‘apologetics.’
Apologetics isn’t apologizing in the sense of saying sorry! An apologia is literally ‘a word back’, but the term means a ‘defense’ or ‘vindication. (See A Faithful Guide To Philosophy
3. Enns says apologetics is only geared towards those that are already in the faith. Really? I have seen testimonies from William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Michael Licona and others who discuss how God used their apologetic works to remove barriers and help the unbeliever come to faith in the Lord.
4. Enns states that apologetics elevates the intellect above everything else. Not true! Good apologetics should be helping people engage God with all their being!
5. For someone like myself who directs a couple of apologetic ministries on college campuses, I find Enns to be ignorant on this topic. I do respect him as a scholar (but don’t agree with all his conclusions). I have had long discussions with almost everyone of different religious backgrounds. They can be kind and loving. As a matter of fact, Mormons are some of the nicest people I have never met. But there is zero evidence for the Book of Mormon. So the typical “People will want to be followers of Jesus by looking at our love and how we live” is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into account many factors in people coming to faith. Granted, I am all for being loving and living the faith out in an attractive manner. But there is a lot more that needs to happen in our witness. I discuss the need to be effective case makers here. Sadly, it is because of posts like the one Enns has written here, that the greatest opposition to apologetics will continue to come from within the Church itself.
6. In the end, it would be nice if Enns would have said the following: “I think the Church needs apologists, historians, Biblical scholars, philosophers, etc. Let us all work at our craft to the glory of God.” Instead, we have a Biblical scholar taking a swipe at a field that he doesn’t care for.
In the end, for myself and others, Enns article will be long forgotten. We have much work to do.
In a older article called The Gospels as Historical Testimony, author Paul Merkley says the following:
The question is this: on what basis do we generally believe what a historical testimony tells us? The answer is: we believe when and insofar as we have confidence in the author of the testimony. The issue of the reliability of an historical witness is absolutely unrelated to whether or not the witness can explain what he has witnessed. The witness may or may not have an explanation for the event. We may have to supply our own explanation. Frequently we do find ourselves supplying better explanation, after the fact. But for the actual occurrence of the event we depend absolutely on testimony of people who were there―and who may be lying to us. The ‘facticity’ of the event owes nothing to the plausibility (to us) of any explanation that the alleged witness may offer. His credentials as a witness come down to these two: (a). was he there? and (b). would he lie to us (or could he have been deceived?)
Epistemology: Knowledge By Testimony
We all know that many events that we study in history are things in the past. Since historians can’t verify the events directly (they weren’t there to participate in the events), they rely on things such as written documents (both primary and secondary sources), external evidence/archaeology, and the testimony of the witnesses to the events. As a Christian, I share the faith of the early witnesses to the life of Jesus. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. We as humans come to know things by a variety of ways such as reason and logic, intuition, by making inferences, personal and religious experience, the scientific method, listening to authorities on a subject matter, and trusting the testimony of others. There is some overlap with this post and another post I did about the inability to trust eyewitness testimony here:
Epistemologically speaking, one of the tools that plays an important element in discovering the past is the testimony of witnesses. New Testament faith is portrayed as knowledge based upon testimony.
Given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves. Jesus taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme. Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. (1)
As Paul Barnett notes,
“Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). (2)
To see more on oral tradition, see here:
Let’s Look at The Eight E’s of Testimony in the New Testament
1. Early Testimony
We don’t want to forget the advice of historian David Hacket Fisher who says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (3) So keeping that in mind, when I am asked as to why Christians don’t put as much weight into extracanonical Gospels, here is something to think about. The Gospel of Mary has been dated at 160 A.D, the Gospel of Peter at 170 A.D. etc. One of the earliest records for the death and resurrection of Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 contains a creed that can be traced back possibly as early as three to ten years after Jesus was crucified!. So keeping in mind the comment by Fisher, what source is more reliable? To read more about this click on our post called The Earliest Record of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus-1 Corinthians 15:3-7 here.
2. Ethical Testimony
There is no reason to distrust the character of those that wrote about the life of Jesus. Given they were predominately Jewish, they were familiar with the principles of the Torah. As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).
As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in their book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).
3. Eyewitness Testimony
One book that has recently handled the issue of the Synoptic Tradition is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.
As Bauckham notes, the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period.
These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8; Gal 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4). As Bauckham says, “This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius. The preference for direct and indirect testimony is an obviously reasonable rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be reasonable.”
4. Embarrassing Testimony
Another issue that speaks to the character and trustworthiness of those that wrote about Jesus is what is called The Principle of Embarrassment- a test that was put forth by John P. Meier in his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1. This criteria seeks out material in the Gospels that would have been would create awkwardness or difficulty for the early church. This type of material would most likely have not been created by the early church because it would have been provided material useful for the early church’s opponents.
Let me go ahead and give an example: All four Gospels attest to Jesus’ baptism by John at the very beginning of his ministry. Would the Gospel authors make up such a tradition? In the Jewish culture, it was understood that the one who was being baptized was spiritually inferior to the baptizer himself. A careful reading throughout the Gospels demonstrate embarrassing issues such as where the disciples portray themselves as dim-witted, uncaring, uneducated, cowardly doubters who are rebuked by Jesus.
Furthermore, it can be observed that the disciples did not believe in Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection (Mark 8:31–33; 9:31–32; 14:27–31). Given that the disciples had spent time with Jesus and had personally witnessed His messianic sayings and actions, what benefit would it be for Mark to leave such an incident in His Gospel? Furthermore, after the resurrection, Mary does not recognize Jesus (John 20: 11-15) and Thomas is seen as disbelieving it (John 20:24-25). It seems that if John wanted to convince his audience of the truthfulness of the event, he would portray Jesus’ followers in a more positive light. The fact that John decided to leave these details in the story only lends credibility to the authenticity of the event.
But the one embarrassing detail that stands out in the Gospels is the proclamation of a crucified Messiah. In relation to a crucified Messiah, Jewish people in the first century were familiar with Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal.
The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”- the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. A crucified Messiah would be a tough sell to a Jewish audience that was still waiting to return to the glory days of the Davidic Dynasty (2 Sam. 7:5-16; 1 Chr.17:7-15; Ps.89:28-37).
5. Excruciating Testimony
If you read through the book of Acts, it is obvious that the early Messianic community was willing to die whether than recant their faith in the risen Lord. It is true that martyrdom doesn’t make a belief true. People die for things that they think are true all the time. But many of the disciples/apostles were given the opportunity to live, if they would only say that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. A witness who is willing to die rather than change his story is a very strong witness.
Chuck Colson, one of the well known participants in the Watergate scandal who is now a Christian says the following:
“Critics of Christianity often try to explain the empty tomb by saying the disciples lied–that they stole Jesus’ body themselves and conspired together to pretend He had risen. The apostles then managed to recruit more than 500 other people to lie for them as well, to say they saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. But just how plausible is this theory? To support it, you’d have to be ready to believe that for the next fifty years those people were willing to be ostracized, beaten, persecuted, and (all but one of them) suffer a martyr’s death–without ever renouncing their conviction that they had seen Jesus bodily resurrected.
Does anyone really think the disciples could have maintained a lie all that time? No, someone would have cracked, just as we did so easily in Watergate. Someone would have acted as John Dean did and turned state’s evidence. There would have been some kind of smoking gun evidence, or a deathbed confession. Why didn’t they? Because they had come face to face with the living God. They could not deny what they had seen. The fact is that people will give their lives for what they believe is true, but they will never give their lives for what they know is a lie. The Watergate cover-up proves that 12 powerful men in modern America couldn’t keep a lie–and that 12 powerless men 2000 years ago couldn’t have been telling anything but the truth.”(4)
6. Extra-Biblical Testimony
Jesus of Nazareth is mentioned by ten non-Christian sources, including Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud! For example, Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3.
Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar (not some hyper-evangelical group) says the following:
“Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixition, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” (5)
7. Enemy Testimony
Historian Paul Maier notes that “positive evidence within a hostile source is the strongest kind of evidence.” There are several places where we can see a hostile source testifies to the events in the New Testament. Enemy attestation can be recognized in the fact that the Jewish leadership did acknowledge that Jesus’ tomb was empty (Matt. 28:11–15) as well as the confirmation about the resurrection from the conversion of many of the Jewish priests (Acts 6:7).
8. External Testimony
Something else that helps solidify the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony is the use of archaeology or external evidence. In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology such as:
1.The use of stone water jars in the New Testament (John 2:6).
2. The proper place of Jacob’s well (2:8)
3. Josephus in (Wars of the Jews 2.232), confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9).
4. “Went Up” accurately describes the ascent to Jerusalem(5:1).
5. Archaeology confirms the existence of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)
6. The obscure and tiny village of Ephraim (11:54) near Jerusalem is mentioned by Josephus.
7. “Come down” accurately describes the topography of western Galilee.(There’s a significant elevation drop from Cana to Capernaum). (4:46;49, 51).
8. Caiaphas was the high priest that year (11:49); we learn from Josephus that Caiaphas held the office from A.D 18-37. To read all 59 points, see here:
The Book of Acts
One book in the New Testament that plays as indispensible role in evaluating the resurrection is the book of Acts. It is within Acts that we see the resurrection was part of the early apostolic preaching and the evidence given that Christianity is true (Acts 2:25-32; 3: 15; 10:39-41; 17:2-3, 18, 31). It is also within Acts that records Paul’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 9:1-9; 22: 1-11; 26: 9-19).
In his monumental work called The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, classics scholar Colin Hemer has shown that Luke has also done his work as an historian.There are at least 84 events, people, locations, etc, which have been confirmed by archaeology. To see the list made be Hemer, see here:
What is significant about Richard Bauckham’s book is his mentioning of Thomas Reid. Reid was a Scottish philosopher and contemporary of David Hume who played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in Reid’s “common sense” philosophy of the eighteenth century where Reid understood testimony as an integral part of the social character of knowledge. In other words, for Reid, to trust the testimony of others is simply fundamental to the kind of creatures we are. I hope the 8 E’s help in your study of the New Testament.
Note: The 6 E’s (early, excruciating, extra-biblical, eyewitness, expected embarrassing, were created by my friend Frank Turek. He actually appeals to 6 E’s. But I have expanded on them a bit (I added enemy and ethical testimony) and left out the part about expected testimony. But to see more on this, see his book which he co-authored with Norman Geisler called I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist.
1. Reid, D. G., The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium Of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2004, 460
2. Barnett, P., Jesus and the Logic of History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press. 1997, 138.
3. Fisher, D.H., Historian’s Fallacies:Toward a Logic of Historical Thought: New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.
4.Colson, C. The Impossible Cover Up. Available athttp://www.breakpoint.org/commentaries/2094-the-impossible-cover-up
5. Crossan, J.D., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994, 145.
Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars have come to have great respect Paul. Allow me to mention a few comments here:
“Without knowing about first century Judaism, modern readers—even those committed to faith by reading him—are bound to misconstrue Paul’s writing…Paul is a trained Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles.” –Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xi-xii
“Paul has left us an extremely precious document for Jewish students, the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew…Moreover, if we take Paul at his word—and I see no a priori reason not to—he was a member of the Pharisaic wing of first century Judaism.”–Daniel Boyarian, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.
“Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of Torah.”-Rabbi Jacob Emeden (1679-1776)–cited by Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 18.
In this post, I want to examine some of the methods and apologetic approaches that Paul used in reaching his culture for the Gospel. There has been a lot of debate on the topic of apologetic methodology. Which approach should we take in following Paul’s example? Presuppositional or Evidential? Many will quote one Pauline text and assert Paul favored one approach more than then the other. Sadly, this is not helpful at all. We need to look at various approaches Paul used before declaring there is only one approach to use in our present culture.
In this case, I have adapted much of this material from A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Galatians (The Jewish Roots of the New Testament) by Joseph Shulam and Hilary Le Cornu. I have taken most of these points from their section called Paul: A Biography, pgs, 435-469.
1.While it has been generally accepted that Paul had a Jewish name (i.e.,Saul), the scholarly consensus is that “Paul” represents a Roman and not a Jewish name. Paul states that he had been born into Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28). Roman citizenship was normally acquired either through inheritance (citizen-born) an en bloc grant, completion of military service, manumission, the granting of special (imperial) favor, or for financial considerations. The fact that non Jewish names are not clearly forbidden is evident from their widespread use, lack of criticism, of the practice of rabbinical literature, and the recognition that not all names are clearly Jewish or non-Jewish.
2. Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Southwestern Asia Minor. There are several references to Tarsus (cf. Acts 21:39; 22:3), and he is identified as “a man from Tarsus” (Acts 9:11).
3.He came from a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin along with Judah, constituted the core of post exilic Judaism, is well documented. Saul and Mordechai were both Benjamites (cf.1 Sam.9:21; Est 2:5).
1. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel.
2. Hillel the Elder was nicknamed “the Babylonian” because he was descended from a family of Babylon.
3. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.”
4. The house of Hillel was unique in that it was an example of a family of who originated from the diaspora, with no priestly connections, which attained the position of hereditary leaders of the nation until, in the time of Rabbi Judah ha Nasi (170-200 C.E.), its members were officially recognized as by the Roman government as Patriarchs.
5. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.” The New Testament evidence demonstrates that Paul belonged to Beit Hillel rather than Beit Shammai. This is supported by Paul’s halakhot (with the possible exception of his view of the legal status of women), his tolerance and openness of Gentiles, some of his no literal interpretations, and his anthropocentric rather than theocentric emphases.
5. The Talmudic sources distinguish between the beit sefer (i.e., the house of the book”) wherein the (sofer) taught the reading of the written Torah- and the beit talmud (i.e., the house of learning). Children would learn the alphabet and how to read in the former, the teacher would write the letters on a wax tablet with a stylus and the pupils would recite them aloud. Reading skills were attained through repetition after the teacher and auditive memory since the scriptural text was not yet vocalized, students were dependent on the teacher’s precision in orally transmitting the precise reading for every passage.
6. Young children were taught how to read and understand the Torah and Prophets, to recite the Shema and the basic blessings over the food, and received instruction regarding their future roles in family and command of life. Following years of Bible study, students moved on to the study of the Oral Torah. School studies would finish at the age of twelve or thirteen (bar mitzvah age) and of the boy was gifted and so inclined he would then enroll at a “beit midrash” to study Torah with other adults who devoted themselves to Torah study in their spare time.
7. If he showed further ability and willingness he could go to one of the famous Sages and learn from him for a number of years. Gamaliel would of served as one of the foremost teachers of the “beit midrash” (e.g., a college or “seminary”) conducted by pharisaic leaders within the Sanhedrin. Therefore, given that Gamaliel was such a distinguished teacher, it may be possible that Paul began to study with him only after he had displayed great promise and reached an age whereby he could profit from learning under a great master like Gamaliel.
8. In the relationship between the students and teacher, a deep bond could be established which led to great love and respect. The subject matter of study revolved around three main areas: Bible, midrash (creative biblical interpretation), aggadah (narrative elaboration of the biblical text). Since Paul’s letters demonstrate a strong familiarity with biblical text among other ways, since he quotes from the Tanakh over ninety times in his letters, the standard hermeneutical rules are displayed both halakhically and aggadically.
9. Paul spoke mishnaic Hebrew/Aramaic as well as Greek (cf. Acts 21:37), in addition to possessing a reading knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Paul also demonstrated he was familiar with Greek poets (e.g., Epimendies, Aratus, Euripides, Memander). Therefore, since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas.
10. There are some parallels to what Paul says about his education and to what Josephus says about his own education. Paul says “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen (Gal 1:14). Josephus describes his education in a similar fashion when he says:
“Brought up with Matthias, my own brother by both parents, I made great progress in my education, gaining a great reputation for an excellent memory and understanding. While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of letters; insomuch that the chief priests and the leading men of the city used to constantly come to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances. At about the age of sixteen I determined to gain personal experience of the several sects into which our nation is divided….” (Life 8-10).
11. Being that Paul was a student of Gamaliel (cf. Acts 22:3;Gal.1:14), Paul would of most likely have been in a very good standing with the Sanhedrin. However, he never claims in his lists of his other status positions that he was ordained-a necessary step before becoming eligible to assume public office (cf.Steeinsaltz, Talmud:23).
12. There is evidence in Acts that Paul could have been viewed as official representative of the Sanhedrin-whether or not the persecution in which he engaged constituted as an “official” initiative.
In discussions about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it is common to start with the Gospels. But in my opinion, I think it is best to back up and start with Paul. After all, Paul’s writings are the earliest records we have for the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, who was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. There are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown that think more than six of them are authored by Paul.
But of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. Bart Ehrman has written a book called Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.
In this book, he discusses the Pauline books that are in question to authorship. I will provide a response to this here by Mike Licona. I think Mike shows there can be a plausible case for the traditional authorship of the disputed New Testament letters that are attributed to Paul.
One common tactic by skeptics is to say Paul yielded no information about the earthly Jesus. In other words, Paul only speaks of the “heavenly Jesus.” Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy tackle this issue in greater detail in their book The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition. I have written more on that here in my post called “What Can Paul Tell Us About Jesus.”
Another tactic is to assert that since Paul never met Jesus his writings are of no great value. I have heard this objection on several occasions. In response, do you just pitch every writing you have written about someone else if the author never met the person they are writing about? I doubt it. Secondly, remember the following:
As Louis Gottschalk says:
“Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness….A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original-that is, the very document (usually in a written draft) [autographa] whose contents are the subject of discussion-for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classic seldom are any but later copies available.” (Understanding History, 53-54).
As we see, since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
Furthermore, Ricahrd Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.
Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).
A little time line may be helpful: Remember Paul’s Letters are dated 48 A.D to 60 A.D. However, the information he receives about the death and resurrection of Jesus predate his writings.
The death of Jesus: 30 A.D.—–33A.D
Paul comes to faith between 33 and 35 A.D.
Paul’s Death: 60-65 A.D.
Temple Destroyed: 70 A.D.
Here are some of Paul’s remarks about the resurrection in his letters:
Romans: Date: 55-56 A.D
Romans 1: 1-5
“ Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus is a descendant of David
2. Jesus was spoken of in the Tanakh (the O.T.)
3. Jesus rose from the dead
Romans 6: 1-5
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
We see here:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose from the dead
4. Paul can’t exhort his readers to understand their identity in Jesus without these historical facts
1 Thessalonians: Date: 50 A.D
1 Thess.1: 9 “ For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
We see here that 1. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Thess.4: 13-14
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus died
2. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Corinthians: 50-55 A.D.
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Here, Paul mentions:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose
One of the key words in this text is “receive.” While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.
The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38.
Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan writes:
Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” -Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, 254.
To read more about this in detail, see my post here called The Earliest Record for The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7.
The point is that Paul received this information long before he even wrote his letter.
In the end, when it comes to the resurrection, I understand some apologists like to start with the Gospels. But from a tactical perspective, I think a wiser approach is to start with Paul.
I had previously written on this topic. But I wanted to add some new tidbits. Over the years, I have had my share of discussions about the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There is still an overall skepticism towards them that permeates the culture and college campuses. I have found that many skeptics have never stopped and asked the question, “What Are The Gospels?”
What Are The Gospels?
When we discuss the Gospels with others I don’t think we can ignore the advice of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington who says, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (1)
For starters, one view of this topic was Dennis R. MacDonald’sHomeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. But there was several problems with this approach. To see some of the issues with this approach, see here: Or, to see whether the Gospels are some sort of historical fiction and the problems with this approach, see Glen Miller’s Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?
Therefore, in asking whether the available sources for the life of Jesus are legendary, we should carefully evaluate the genre of the Gospels. In studying for his doctoral dissertation, Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College in London England, researched the genre of the gospels. Burridge says, “Genre is the like a kind of contract between the author and the reader, or between the producers of a programme and the audience, about how they will write or produce something and how you should interpret what they have written.” Therefore, it is important that you know what the genre of the thing is before you come to interpret it.” (2)
Burridge placed special attention on the prologue, verb subjects, allocation of space, mode of representation, length, structure, scale, literary units, use of sources, style, social setting, quality of characterization, atmosphere as well authorial intention and purpose. Because of the gospel’s similarities to these ancient biographies, Burridge concluded that the genre of the gospels is what is called an ancient bioi which bear some similarities to Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. But just because it can be concluded that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, does that mean they are historical in nature? We probably should take the advice of David Aune when he says, “Greco Roman biography was “intrinsically concerned with history.” (3)
Some of the other aspects of an Ancient Bioi:
Ancient Bioi centered on a particular person and sought to present adequate characterization of that person. The biography would include information about other persons and groups of people, but the major focus of the work would be on central character. The goal of the ancient biographer was often hortatory or exhortational. Burridge says, “Ancient Bioi was a flexible genre having strong relationships with history, encomium and rhetoric, moral philosophy and the concern for character.” (4)
Other issues of Ancient Bioi:
1.The modern desire for precision must not be imposed on ancient authors because they wrote in general fashion. Ancient authors were content to use adverbs and other terms for time in a metaphorical or less that precise way. Example- Luke says “Jesus was about 30”
2. The ancient author utilized historical data about the central figure but did so with different purposes.
3. The goal of ancient bioi was to create a lasting impression on the reader.
4. Objection: “Why do the gospels not include more about Jesus’ childhood and early adult years? Because another aspect of an Ancient Bioi placed little focus on childhood development of the person in question since it was believed that character was basically static and did not develop over time, but rather, was merely revealed.
5. The author’s goal was not to recount all the historic events of the person’s life. The goal was to reveal who the person was through a portrait of words and deeds. If the person’s death took place in a glorious fashion, an ample amount of space had to be devoted to the biography to explain significance of event. The reason for this is the following: in antiquity that how one died revealed one’s true character. Since Jesus was crucified and no one in antiquity saw this as a noble way to die, this explains why the gospels include so much information about this event.
6. The tendency to apply modern historiographical expectations to the gospels makes it difficult to recognize ancient conventions and genre traits that are used in the Gospels such as:
1. Exhaustive or comprehensive accounts 2. Value-free commentary 3. Ascribing all events to natural causes –ancient authors did not hesitate to mention supernatural events in their narratives of historical events. 4.The avoidance of rhetorical devices and effects (5)
Charles Talbert, who had written the groundbreaking What Is a Gospel? says the following about the Burridge book, “This volume ought to end any legitimate details pf the canonical Gospel’s biographical character” (see his review in Journal of Biblical Literature, 112 (1993).
The Jewish Background of the Gospels
Michael Bird has recently noted the following about the genre of the Gospels:
“The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament. The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.”—-Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 229). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Bird also says:
The Gospels are the textual imprint of the oral phenomena of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. Viewed this way, they are Christian documents related to the needs of Christians in corporate reading, worship, apologetics, and proclamation. So in that sense they are a unique genre with no precise literary counterparts. However, their uniqueness is in many ways inconsequential because they remain largely analogous to Greco-Roman biography, and the biographical genre was typified by innovation and adaptation. The content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear subtype of Greco-Roman biography.- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 270), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
The Gospel Genre and Historical Intention
In the latest book by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy called The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (pgs 334-335) they note Willem van Unick’s study of how ancient historians understood their work based on Lucian’s How To Write History and Dionysis of Halicarnassus’s Letter to Pompei. From these two works van Unick formulates “ten rules” of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were expected to:
1. Choose a noble subject 2. Choose a subject that would be useful to the intended audience 3. Be impartial and independent in researching and composing their history 4. Construct a good narrative with an especially good beginning and ending 5. Engage in adequate preparatory research 6. Use good judgment in the selection of material, exemplifying appropriate variety 7. Accurately and appropriately order one’s material 8. Make the narrative lively and interesting 9. Exercise moderation in topographical details 10. Compose speeches appropriate to the orator and rhetorical situation
Daniel Marguerat has analyzed Luke’s history writing in the light of Unnick’s ten rules and has arrived at the following conclusion:
“Comparisons of Luke-Acts with the list of historiographal norms confirms that the Lucan writings corresponds to standard Graeco-Roman historiogrpahy. We…find that Luke follows eight of ten rules: his transgression of the other two (the first and the third) points us toward the specificity of Luke’s project. The instructions observed by Luke are also followed by the majority of historians of Hellenistic Judaism, especially Flavius Josephus.”
Boyd and Eddy note that Luke’s apparent violation of rule number one is instructive. Rather than a culturally appropriate noble subject, Luke and his fellow Gospel writers chose as their central focus the life of a Galilean carpenter who was eventually crucified as a false messiah and blasphemer—hardly a “noble subject. “ –pgs 334-335
Brent Pitre, Author of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ says the following about the Gospels as ancient biography.
“The four Gospels are not just any kind of ancient biography. They are historical biographies, two of which explicitly claim to tell us what Jesus actually did and said and to be based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-24). The reason the historical character of the Gospels is important is that some scholars claim that the authors of the Gospels did not even intend to give us the historical truth about the words and deeds of Jesus. The only way to hold such a view, however, is to ignore the fact that ancient biographers often insist that they are recording the truth about what someone did and said. For example, in his biography of the philosopher Demonax, Lucian makes sure to let the reader know that he was an eyewitness and a disciple of Demonax himself: I speak with reference to the Boeotian Sostratus…and to Demonax, the philosopher. Both these men I saw myself, and saw with wonderment: and under one of them, Demonax, I was long a student. (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 1)24 One reason that Lucian may stress this point is that elsewhere in his writings, he insists on the ancient historian’s obligation to tell the truth: The historian’s task is one: to tell it as it happened…. This is the one peculiar characteristic of history, and to truth alone must sacrifice be made. (Lucian, How to Write History, 39, 40)25 Along similar lines, the first-century Jewish writer Josephus insists on the historical truth of his autobiography:
Having reached this point in my narrative, I propose to address a few words to Justus, who has produced his own account of these affairs, and to others who, while professing to write history, care little for truth, and either from spite or partiality, have no scruples about falsehood. The procedure of such persons resembles indeed the forgers of contracts, but having no corresponding penalty to fear, they can afford to disdain veracity…. [But] veracity is incumbent upon a historian. (Josephus, Life, 336–39) Notice that there is no trace of the idea that accounts in a biography can be true “whether or not they happened.” To the contrary, Josephus insists that the biography he is writing is a subset of “history” (Greek historia). This means that an author ought to tell the “truth” (Greek alētheia) about what happened, rather than “falsehood” (Greek pseudos). Of course, scholars may dispute whether or not Josephus or any other biographer was successful in telling the truth. But they can’t dispute that the genre of his writing is historical biography, and that he is purporting to tell what actually happened. As a result, any scholar who were to compare Josephus’s autobiography to “folklore” or “fairy stories” would be considered ridiculous. Nonetheless, this is exactly how scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann portray the Gospels. If we look at what the four Gospels actually say about what kinds of books they are, we discover that two of them emphasize that they are recording what Jesus actually did and said. They also claim that they are based on eyewitness testimony. In other words, they insist that they are historical biographies.
Consider, once again, the prologue to the Gospel of Luke:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write carefully in order for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the facts concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
In order to understand the importance of Luke’s prologue for our argument, four points need to be explained.
First, as many scholars point out, Luke’s prologue is strikingly similar to the prologues found in ancient Greco-Roman histories, by authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Josephus.27 Like the prologues of other ancient histories, Luke’s prologue is intended to signal to the reader that the Gospel is historical in character. Second, Luke uses the word “narrative” (Greek diēgēsis) to describe his book. As Joseph Fitzmyer has shown, ancient Greco-Roman authors often use this word specifically for “the writing of history” (see Josephus, Life, 336; Lucian, How to Write History, 55).28 Third, Luke insists that his historical narrative is based on the testimony of “eyewitnesses (Greek autoptai) from the beginning” of Jesus’s public ministry. Now, why would Luke emphasize the eyewitness nature of his sources if he were just telling folktales? Clearly, Luke wants his readers to know that what he says about Jesus can be corroborated by those who knew him. Fourth and finally, Luke explicitly states that he is writing so that his audience might know “the facts” (Greek asphaleian). Although some English Bibles translate the Greek word asphalēia as “truth,” elsewhere Luke consistently uses it to refer to secure and verifiable facts (see Acts 21:34; 22:30; 25:26).29 In other words, the Gospel of Luke begins by insisting that it is an accurate, factual account, based directly on eyewitness testimony of what Jesus did and said.” – Brent Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Kindle Locations, 1383- 1427
The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Second Edition by Richard Bauckham
One book that has recently handled the issue of eyewitness testimony issue within the New Testament is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. In this book, Bauckham offers a new paradigm called “The Jesus of Testimony.”
New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. How do we know something? The role of testimony is one of the primary ways humans can know anything about historical events. Bauckham does a superb job in evaluating how testimony can be treated as historical knowledge.
Bauckham also notes the following:
“The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events.
Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. Above all, these historians valued reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).”
It is my hope that more people will take the time to look at the genre of the books of the Bible and actually attempt to know what it is they are trying to interpret. While this may be a challenge for some people, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
1. Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001), 14-28.
2. Richard Burridge And Graham Gould, Jesus: Then And Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004), 2.
3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2007), 411.
4. See Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco Roman Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Second Edition, 2004).
5. These six points can be found in Witherington’s New Testament History.
6. Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books. 1999), 431.