Bart Ehrman and friends are making the rounds with their books attempting to undermine the reliability of the New Testament witnesses to the life of Jesus. Have you bought their rhetoric? Have you joined the chorus of skeptics in an age of unbelief? Here’s a challenging rebuttal by Dr. Ben Witherington III to consider.
(This lecture was given at the Greer-Heard Forum last Saturday at New Orleans Baptist Seminary after the presentations the previous day by Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans.)
I listened to my scholarly colleagues yesterday give us a variety of answers as to whether the Gospels are historically reliable when it comes to their portraits of Jesus, debate differences in the accounts and their significance, talk about how we derive historically responsible conclusions about Jesus, and speak with passion and conviction about their subject matter, and one might add, also some exasperation. They were both exasperated with flat, insipid, overly literalistic fundamentalistic readings of the four canonical Gospels served up by the right Rev. Billy Bob Proverb all too regularly on a cable network near you. And I understand and share that exasperation. But at the end of the day I was also frustrated with what I heard from both Bart and Craig yesterday to some degree, and I will now explain why.
We are all products of our education, and in case of myself and indeed all of us, we were all trained to analyze the Gospels in detail using source, and form, and redaction criticism. Now these methods have their pluses and minuses. They can be useful in getting at certain aspects of things about the historical Jesus, but unfortunately these methods cannot help us very much to deal with the canonical Gospels if we seek to treat them as they were intended to be treated by their original inspired authors. More on that in a minute.
These Gospel authors were not operating with the canons of modern secular historiography which tends to have an anti-supernatural bias with its practitioners regularly muttering astoundingly dogmatic things like “that didn’t happen because those kind of things don’t happen. People don’t rise from the dead.” I have to say that that sort of dogmatic statement puts the dog back in dogmatic just as much as the dogmatic statements of some fundamentalist TV preachers. It is especially proper to ask persons who are dogmatic in modern secular anti-supernaturalist ways, just as it is proper to ask persons who are dogmatic in others ways— ‘How do you know things like that don’t happen?’ And if the answer is ‘I have never seen such a thing happen’ then we realize we are dealing with persons who needs to get out more, see more of the world of human experience, but have the arrogance to assume that his or her private, individual experience exhausts what is possible when it comes to the limits of historical reality. This person is in fact saying “talk to the hand with your miracle reports, the face is not listening.” What is even worse is when such scholars then take the next step of suggesting that if you don’t have these sorts of presuppositions you are not a critical scholar, and are not doing proper historical analysis of the Gospels.
Now I must admit that in many ways this anti-supernatural philosophical presupposition is the one that undergirds much of modern historiography, and that is what it is– a philosophical presupposition, an a priori that miracles don’t happen. It is of course certainly not based on an exhaustive study of empirical reality, or even a representative study of empirical reality, because indeed there have been millions of reports and testimonies to miracles even in modernity with verifiable empirical data, and indeed there are some being given even as we speak. But the ‘modern’ historian with the anti-supernatural bias, just as dogmatically as the fundamentalist preacher in another way wants to say— “don’t confuse me with the facts, don’t give me all these stories, however credible and however verifiable even by medical records before and after…… I know what I know. Those things just don’t happen.” Is such a person open and fair minded to the complexities and varieties of human experience or human history? I am afraid not.
Because the answer is no, when in fact there is plenty of contrary evidence, one has to get louder and more vociferous on insisting that this is the only proper way to analyze reality or history. Like the old preacher who revealingly wrote in his sermon notes at one point “not actually sure about this point, pound the pulpit harder and speak louder” such a person would like certain doubts to go away, doubts that he or she might be wrong, but alas, he can’t exorcise the demon of those doubts so this person just becomes more strident in their insistence that they are right, and others must be wrong. One wonders whether they are more trying to convince themselves or others, at the end of the day.
Me personally I don’t believe in ‘justification by doubt’. I don’t believe that philosophical skepticism is the same thing as critical thinking, and I also don’t think that the sort of historiography that is undergirded by such a prioris can help us very much with the question are the Gospels reliable, truthful witnesses when it comes to the historical Jesus. In fact, if you want to actually get at the truth of something, you have to enter into dialogue with that source giving it the benefit of the doubt, allowing it to have its say, and while one doesn’t put one’s critically thinking cap aside, if you do not approach the material with an open mind and a willingness to learn from it, you won’t get at the truth of the matter, not even the historical truth of the matter. You can’t possibly analyze the actual nature of a raging fire, by pouring cold water on it, and then picking over the ashes and charcoal thereafter.
What then are the Gospels, and how should they be analyzed, and are they historically reliable when it comes to the historical Jesus, whether in general or in detail?