A Historical Investigation of Jesus: An Annotated Bibliography

The Most Helpful Sources I Consulted

Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018)

Balancing readability and scholarship, this is probably the best place to start for any layman investigating the historical reliability of the gospels. Clocking in at a slim 160 pages, it punches above its slender weight with terrific coverage of non-Christian sources, gospel accuracy, undesigned coincidences, and textual criticism. Peter J. Williams (Ph.D. Cambridge) is principal at Tyndale House Cambridge, has taught New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, is chair of the International Greek New Testament Project, and was on the ESV translation committee. In other words, he really knows his stuff.

Pitre, Brant. The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. (New York: Image, 2016)

Bringing a helpful Roman Catholic perspective amidst all the evangelical sources I used, Pitre’s book is the best source for defending the traditional authorship of the gospels as well as a helpful chapter about genre, and for using the Jewish context of Jesus’ time to illuminate His self-understanding as God. As you might expect, this is also a good source for the Church Fathers’ perspective on the historical Jesus debate. Pitre (Ph.D Notre Dame) is Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute (Denver, CO) after previously teaching sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016)

While I recommend reading the previous two sources, this comprehensive, 750-page reference work/textbook is more for looking up a specific topic. That said, this is the magnum opus of the dean of historical New Testament studies and the most helpful source I consulted. It’s surprisingly readable and accessible, while not sacrificing scholarly rigor. Blomberg (Ph.D. Univ. of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado where he has taught for 35 years.

Hill, C.E. Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Written in the midst of the frenzy of conspiratorial theorizing about the early Church in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, Hill’s book should put to rest once and for all the ridiculous idea that the early Church conspired to suppress legitimate gospels. His coverage of the apocryphal gospels and the canonization process is clear, although his attempts to prove a first-century gospel canon strike me as a bit of a stretch. Hill (Ph.D. Cambridge) is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Bock, Darrell and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007)

This book was written largely in response to Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and is very helpful on the subject of textual criticism. It also has good sections on the gospels of Thomas and Judas. Wallace (Ph.D. Dallas Theological Seminary) and Bock (Ph.D. Univ. of Aberdeen) both teach at Dallas Theological Seminary. Wallace wrote a standard textbook on biblical Greek, was New Testament editor for the NET bible, and founded the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Bock is Dallas Seminary’s Executive Director of Cultural Engagement.

Habermas, Gary and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004)

This book’s “minimal facts” approach to arguing for the resurrection revolutionized the field. Habermas’s cautious approach yields big dividends and makes his case (in my mind, at least) practically airtight. Habermas (Ph.D. Michigan State) is distinguished research professor and chair of the department of philosophy and theology at Liberty University. Licona (Ph.D. Univ. of Pretoria) is Associate Professor in Theology at Houston Baptist University.

Other Sources I Consulted

McLaughlin, Rebecca. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019)

The best and most winsome book of apologetics in years. Answers questions both intellectual and emotional that non-Christians often raise about the faith, with a needed touch of empathy that is often missing in apologetics. Highly recommended.

Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006)

This source is particularly useful for the apocryphal gospels, although it’s a bit disjointed for my tastes.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

This source was cited more than almost any other in my research. Other scholars seem to stand in awe of Bauckham (Ph.D. Cambridge; professor emeritus at Univ. of St. Andrews), although this tome was a bit dry and scholarly to me. I gather that the entire tenor of New Testament scholarship changed with Bauckham’s work.

Study Bibles

The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008) is the gold standard of study Bibles that also features (in my opinion) the gold standard Bible translation. An ecumenical work with a Reformed bent, this Bible is both beautifully laid out and comprehensive in its coverage while being usable for even a Bible newbie. Highly recommended.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019) is my new favorite study Bible. Available in both the NIV and NRSV translations (I own the latter), this Bible has taught me something every time I’ve opened it. As the title suggests, it gives the cultural and historical background for the text, with numerous pictures, maps, and articles that illuminate the geography and culture of the Bible. It also helps that it is edited by two of the premier Biblical scholars working today: John Walton (Old Testament) and Craig Keener (New Testament).

All of the notes in the Ancient Faith Study Bible (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2019) are quotations from the early Church fathers. There are also “articles” containing longer selections from the fathers, biographies of the fathers, small articles about prominent heresies, and (most surprising of all from a Baptist publication) the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. The only disadvantage of this Bible is the CSB translation, which is fine but not my favorite.

YouTube Channels

Inspiring Philosophy (real name: Michael Jones) is an apologetics YouTuber who does terrific, sober, scholarly work. He has a number of videos that helped in my research. Check out his playlists on the reliability of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. Highly recommended.

The Ten-Minute Bible Hour (real name: Matt Whitman) is smart and funny in equal measure. His “Nuts and Bolts of the Bible” playlist helped out this series immensely. His most popular videos are “Learning About Other Churches” where he learns about different faith traditions than his own (e.g. Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) with winsome curiosity and humility.

Other Sources by Topic (lightly annotated)

This is a select group of books from the source notes at the end of each post. See individual posts for more resources.

Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Historical Jesus:

Bock, Darrell. Studying the Historical Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002)

Evans, Craig A. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)

Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000)

Authorship, Dating and Genre of the Gospels:

Burridge, Richard. What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004)

The best resource on the genre question

Eve, Eric. Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014)

Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)

A comprehensive work on the historical Jesus debate. Keener (Ph.D. Duke) is one of the deans of New Testament scholarship and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Historical Accuracy of the Gospels and Unintended Coincidences:

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. (New York: New Press, 2012)

Evans, Craig A. Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture. (Peabody [MA]: Hendrickson, 2015).

McGrew, Lydia. Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe [OH]: DeWard, 2017)

Notley, R. Stephen. In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2014)

The Gnostic Gospels, the New Testament Canon, and Textual Criticism

Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006)

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)

Metzger, Bruce and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)

Porter, Stanley E. How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

Perrin, Nicholas. Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007)

Apologetics:

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)

The most comprehensive apologetic resource by the most prominent living Christian apologist

Groothius, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011)

Another all-inclusive resource with a slightly more popular slant than Craig’s standard text

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952)

Still the best book to put into the hand of a curious and intelligent agnostic. See also Lewis’s book Miracles

Science and Faith:

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Rev. Ed. (New York: Free Press, 2006)

The book that destroyed the myth of unmediated evolution. Atheist scientists have attacked this book, but they have never been able to refute it.

Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Dembski, William. Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language (Eugene [OR]: Harvest House Publishers, 2008).

Hutchinson, Ian. Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018)

The Death and Burial of Jesus

Edwards, William D. et. al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255.11 (March 21, 1986), pp. 1455-63.

A landmark article that killed the “swoon theory” with a barrage of unassailable medical science.

Gibson, Shimon. The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

Sloyan, Gerald S. The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995)

Magness, Jodi. “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32:1 (January/February 2006)

McCane, Byron R. Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg [PA]: Trinity Press, 2003)

The Resurrection of Jesus

Allison, Dale C. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005)

Copan, Paul and Ronald K. Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000)

John J. Johnson “Were the Resurrection Appearances Hallucinations? Some Psychiatric and Psychological Considerations” Churchman (Autumn 2001), pp. 227-238

A terrific article that refutes the hallucination and mass hysteria theories by simply citing the scientific literature on those topics.

Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010)

Licona’s stand-alone work is quickly becoming the new standard on this topic.

Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)

Wright (D. Phil. Oxford), an Anglican bishop and Oxford professor, is another scholar that fellow scholars frequently cite. This is volume 2 of his four-volume magnum opus, “Christian Origins and the Question of God”. It is the most comprehensive defense of the historical resurrection in print. For a more accessible, popular apologetic work by Wright, I highly recommend Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 3: The Risen Lord

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

–Philippians 3:10-11 (NRSV)

The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.

–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 50

And so we have reached the end of our journey. It is Holy Saturday, the day in which Jesus lay quietly in the tomb (although Christians believe he was still busy), and the final day of Lent. We have also reached the end of the road in the search for Jesus, the man from Nazareth. We have found ample evidence of his existence and impact on the world. We have seen how the gospels are eyewitness accounts of his life and work that pass every conceivable test of historical reliability. And this week we have explored in depth the story of his resurrection, the confounding facts and the inadequate theories. Still, like Mary Magdalene, we stand before the empty tomb dumbfounded. Secular historical inquiry has brought us as far as it can. We are sailing off the map and into uncharted waters. So let us look today at one final theory.

Theory 5 — The Resurrection Theory

When looking at historical documents like the gospels, there is one possibility that sometimes gets overlooked: maybe they were telling the truth. Maybe they actually saw Jesus standing before them alive in a new and immortal body. Maybe Jesus ate and drank with them as he had so many times before, only this time it was different. Maybe he demonstrated his ultimate power and gave the disciples the charge to tell the world the good news that death no longer had mastery over the human race. It is almost too much to hope for. Maybe it’s all true.

Analyzing the Resurrection Theory

The reason to not believe this theory is obvious (dead people stay dead), so let’s look at a couple of reasons it might be true. First of all, Jesus predicted that it would happen: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31; see also Matt. 17:22-23; Luke 9:22). We have already seen in John’s gospel that he said he would “rebuild this temple” in three days. He also told the people that the only sign he would give them was the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-40; 16:4), whose journey to the heart of the sea in the belly of a fish and eventual deliverance represented death and resurrection. Even Jesus’ enemies understood what he was saying, as Matthew records the Pharisees saying to Pilate: “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” (27:63). The disciples did not recognize or expect the resurrection, but all the signs were there. This is important as historical evidence, because it means the theory is not ad hoc. There is a context in which this theory is at least minimally plausible.

Furthermore, Jesus claimed to be and acted like a deity, specifically the incarnation of the monotheistic God of the Jews. This is much too big a topic to cover in one paragraph or even one blog post (“christology” is an entire subset of Christian theological study). However, I hope a few data points should suffice. As I have mentioned, Jesus called himself “the Son of Man” in all four gospels, which is a direct reference to the prophecy in Daniel 7 where it says of the Son of Man: “to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (v. 14). Jesus himself says before Caiphas and the council that “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64; see also Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69). Secondly, Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins, which every Jew knew was only something God could do (see Matt. 9:2-7; Mark 2:7; Luke 7:47-48). Third, when Jesus walked on the water and the disciples cried out in fear thinking him a ghost, he told them to have courage by claiming the name of God — “I am” (Gr. ego eimi see Matt. 14:27). His power over nature was a demonstration of his divine nature. No wonder that the disciples in the boat worshiped him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Fourth, God declared Jesus to be his Son at both Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Matt. 3:17; 17:5 and parallels). Notice that I have been staying in the synoptic gospels. If I add the gospel of John, the evidence becomes overwhelming. There, Jesus asks the disciples to pray in his name (16:23-24), claims authority to judge the world (5:27), and says simply “I and the Father are one” (10:30). As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, these are either the ravings of a lunatic, the deceptions of a liar, or the revelation of the Lord. With the reliability of the gospels firmly established, no other option is available to us. If only we had some incontrovertible proof that he was who he said he was. Perhaps something like rising from the dead. Let’s see if that lines up with the facts.

Does the Resurrection Theory align with the facts?

Fact #1: The most logical reason that the disciples believed and proclaimed that they had seen the Lord alive was that it actually happened. A legend did not have time to develop, a conspiracy would have been uncovered, and a hallucination would have been easy to discount after enough time. But a resurrected Lord would explain why the disciples preached the message immediately and with such passion. Fact #2: The only way the gospels would record women as the ones to discover the empty tomb was if it actually happened. No legend or conspiracy would ever make it up, and the male disciples would never believe a hallucinatory story recounted by a bunch of women (indeed, Luke tells us that they didn’t believe the women’s story). But how beautiful, and how like Jesus, to reveal himself first to those that society discounts and despises. What a powerful demonstration that, unlike what the Gospel of Thomas says, women are not second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven, but instead heirs of the resurrection promise just as much as men. Fact #3: While you could presume that the disciples were truly bold conspirators or operating under a powerful delusion, the best theory to explain the immediate proclamation of the resurrection in the very city of Christ’s death is that the resurrection happened. Far from needing to remove themselves from the evidence to start a cult, the disciples started the religion in the heart of enemy territory and in walking distance from Jesus’ tomb. Fact #4: None of the alternate theories come close to explaining why Paul or James would convert to Christianity. They would not have believed a legend, would have suspected a conspiracy, and would have laughed at hallucinations. Nothing else could convince a staunch opponent and persecutor of the Church like Paul to completely change course. Nothing else could convince a man who had grown up with Jesus like James to worship his older brother as the Lord of all creation. Only an encounter with the risen Lord could accomplish something so remarkable. Fact #5: People do not suffer and die gruesome deaths for a nice story. They do not lose everything they once held dear for something they know to be a lie. When being led off to crucifixion, even the most delusional man will begin to doubt his hallucinations. But if they saw and heard and touched Jesus, and were there when he disappeared from their sight in the sky, then it makes perfect sense that the disciples would gladly suffer anything, pay any price, for Jesus’ sake. Indeed, they “rejoiced to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus]” (Acts 5:41). Fact #6: The tomb was empty because Jesus is alive. Not metaphorically alive, not alive as a vision from heaven, but physically and eternally alive. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6).

The resurrection theory is the only theory we have investigated that accounts for all of the facts, and it is the theory that best satisfies each piece of historical evidence. Primary-source evidence; archaeology; circumstantial evidence — it all points in one unmistakable direction. The grave is empty and Jesus is alive.

From Knowledge to Knowing

In the epigraph above, Paul says that he wants to know Christ. That is what we have spent the last seven weeks attempting to discover: who is Jesus? But Paul doesn’t stop there — he wants to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings. What Paul wants is not head-knowledge, but a deep, heart-level “knowing”. Secular historical inquiry only seeks, and can only provide, knowledge about historical figures. The most frustrating part about studying history is that you can’t just sit down a talk to the people, to really get into their heads and their hearts to see what made them tick, who they really were. But if Jesus is alive, we have that opportunity. We can go beyond merely knowing about Him to knowing Him. And He invites us to do just that. For the past 40 days we have been participating, in a tiny way, in his sufferings. Now he invites us to know the power of His resurrection in our lives. And we experience that by knowing Him. You see, even the gospels, as reliable and comprehensive as they are, are not the primary sources about Jesus. He is the primary source. He is the source of everything, the creator of the universe, and in Him is life (John 1). Our rational selves balk at such grandiose notions. Well, our reason has done good work to this point and led us to the precipice of the mystery. Indeed, as Chesterton noted, we cannot look directly at this mystery, but we can see the light that it sheds on everything else. If we accept that Jesus is who He says He is, then everything else we have looked at over the past seven weeks makes sense. More than that, everything about the world, indeed the universe, begins to come into focus. As Paul so aptly put it, “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). So I am asking, if you are like me and get stuck in your head more often than not, for you to move beyond knowledge about Christ to knowing Christ. My prayer is the same as Paul’s for the Ephesians: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:17-19). It is only love that will complete our journey to discover who Jesus really is.

Conclusion

Whatever your beliefs and whatever your conclusions, I hope you have found this historical search for Jesus of Nazareth to be as enlightening, fascinating, and encouraging as I have. I hope you have come away, as I have, with a greater appreciation for the historical reliability of the New Testament and the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I pray that this study may encourage anyone in a season of doubt about their faith that they are not crazy (at least about this) and that following Christ is not a journey to a dead end. On the contrary, it is a journey of transformation, full of thickets and thorns to be sure, but a journey to eternal life. I have debated how to end this series properly. But I think the best way is to join the ancient chorus that the Church universal, around the world and in heaven, declares with loud and joyous voices: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A Note on Sources

Next week, I will post an annotated bibliography of the sources I used along with other frequently cited sources that you may wish to investigate if you want to go deeper on any topic I have discussed. I will try to point you, one layman to another, toward the most accessible and readable books on the topics and avoid overly-academic tomes. If you want to go any deeper than that, graduate schools and seminaries abound. As for me, I’m ready to move on to the next thing. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 2: The Theories

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

–2 Peter 1:16 (ESV)

In my last post, I went over the undisputed facts surrounding the death of Jesus and its immediate aftermath. These facts (listed below) cry out for an explanation, as does the immediate and explosive growth of a brand new religion that won converts among both Jews and Gentiles. Today, I will go over the various theories about the resurrection story offered by those who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The theories fall into four categories: (1) Legend Theories; (2) Conspiracy Theories; (3) Psychological Theories; and (4) Combination Theories The first three theories have sub-categories and I will try to cover each one. I will briefly explain each theory and then apply each theory to the available facts. In my previous post, I established that almost all historians agree that Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried. I then established six additional facts. As a reminder, those facts are:

  1. The disciples believed and proclaimed that they had seen Jesus resurrected bodily
  2. It was reported that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus
  3. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem immediately after the death of Jesus
  4. Skeptics like Paul and Jesus’ brother James were converted to Christianity
  5. The disciples (and Paul and James) suffered persecution and were martyred proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus
  6. The tomb was empty (this fact is attested by a majority of scholars, but is controversial enough that I will not use it as the sole basis for confirming or denying a theory)

Theory 1.1: The Story was Embellished Over Time

The most common belief among those who deny the resurrection is that the story simply got embellished over time, a classic “fish tale”. The disciples loved Jesus so much and wished he wasn’t dead, so they started saying that he was still alive (maybe in a spiritual sense). Over time, this grew into the idea that Jesus had actually come back from the dead with a human body. Given that Jesus was already rumored to work wonders, this story really caught on and it makes sense that people could believe it. It was a story they wanted to be true, and they simply made it so.

Does The Embellishment Theory align with the facts?

Fact #1: The main problem with this theory is that there was not enough time for a legend to develop. We can see that the disciples were proclaiming the resurrection in the creed from 1 Corinthians 15 that dates to less than ten years from Jesus’ death. Secondly, we have gospel accounts of the resurrection within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. Third, if the embellishment theory is true, that would mean that the original preaching of the disciples did not include the resurrection and we have seen that this is not true. Fact #2: If you were going to make up a story about the resurrection, you would not make women the ones who discovered the tomb (see the N.T. Wright quote in my last post). More likely, we would have seen that fact become less prominent in works written later when in fact the opposite is true (e.g. the gospels include it, while 1 Cor. 15 does not). Fact #3: The immediate proclamation of the resurrection in Jerusalem belies legendary embellishment. Fact #4: Skeptics like Paul and James would not be converted at such an early date by a vague, embellished story about a risen Jesus. People do not give up fiercely-held beliefs on account of rumors. Fact #5: The disciples would not have died for a story that had not been made up yet. Lastly, this theory is simply being asserted without evidence. Saying that the early oral tradition did not include the resurrection is not the same as proving it. If your theory flies in the face of the facts, you need better evidence than “it must have gone like this”.

Theory 1.2: The Resurrection Accounts were Metaphors

Another common belief about the resurrection accounts in the gospels is that they were not meant to be taken literally. John Dominic Crossan has made his career on this theory. Jesus was a revolutionary prophet whose teachings lived on in the hearts and minds of his disciples. Just as he spoke in parables, so did his students. They were honoring his legacy by showing that he would “live on” forever. To take him literally is to miss the point. Nancy Gibbs, in an article for Time magazine summarizes this theory nicely:

It is not blasphemy to say the Resurrection never happened, because accounts of Christ’s rising are meant metaphorically….One robs the Bible of its richness and poetry by insisting it should be read literally. Jesus was resurrected in the lives and dreams of his followers; the body of Christ is the Church, not a reconstituted physical body. The Resurrection represents an explosion of power, a promise of salvation that does not depend on a literal belief in physical resurrection.

“The Message of Miracles”, Time Magazine, 10 April 1995, p. 70

Does the Metaphor Theory align with the facts?

Facts #1-3: The main problem with the metaphor theory is that it doesn’t line up with how the disciples preached. In my last post, I have an entire section showing that the apostles made it very clear that they were talking about a physical, bodily resurrection. Jesus ate and drank in front of them; the women grasped his feet; Thomas put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. None of this smacks of metaphorical language. Furthermore, I have shown in my post on the subject that the gospels are not in the genre of folklore/legend, but biography. The earliest message of the apostolic proclamation was “Jesus returned from the dead, which proves that He is God and that He can resurrect your body, too.” Fact #4: A parable or a comforting story would not convince a skeptic like Paul or James to upend their entire lives. Paul is likely to have initially seen the proclamation about Jesus as half-baked midrash, fables that he could easily dismiss. To follow such stories would be to risk apostasy and imperil his soul. Something else must have happened to change his mind. Fact #5: How many of us are willing to die for a metaphor? Even if you want to believe that the disciples would die for “a promise of salvation”, that is not the message that they were proclaiming. Fact #6: The empty tomb was literally, not metaphorically, empty. Indeed, Jewish and pagan skeptics pushing back on the resurrection narrative in the first and second centuries did not say it was all a metaphor. Instead they accused the disciples of grave robbing or performing some kind of magic or deception (see, e.g., quotes from Celsus in Origen Contra Celsum, 1.68; 2.56; 2.59). In short, while this theory feels good and allows us to escape the implications of physical resurrection, it is simply an assertion and does not line up with any of the historical facts.

Theory 1.3: The Resurrection Story is Borrowed from Pagan Myths

This one is a favorite of what I might call “very-online” skeptics, although it has its origins in a book entitled The Golden Bough (1890) that has been dismissed by twentieth-century scholars. They argue that the idea of a god dying and rising again was simply borrowed from many pagan predecessors and applied to Jesus. Examples include Adonis, Attis, Marduk, Tammuz, Osiris, and Horus. Even Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) compared Jesus’ resurrection to stories from Roman mythology like Asclepius, Hercules, Baccus, and even the supposed deification of the emperor Augustus (see First Apology 21). Jesus is no different than these other supposedly “resurrected” deities.

Analyzing the Mythic Theory

None of the commonly-cited myths have anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus. For his part, Justin Martyr was simply trying to show the Romans that persecuting Christians was inconsistent with allowing other religions to continue to operate. In any case, let’s go through each example to see how far-fetched this theory is.

  • Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was killed by one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and was placed among the stars as a constellation. Later, at Apollo’s request, he was resurrected on Olympus. He never had a bodily or earthly resurrection.
  • Heracles/Hercules, the famed Greek/Roman demigod, died when he donned a shirt covered in Hydra blood, which ripped the skin from his bones. His human side died while his god portion rose to Olympus. This is quite different from Jesus bodily resurrection as a human being on earth. Also, Jesus is never portrayed as a demigod, a completely foreign concept to Judaism.
  • Bacchus/Dionysus, the Greek/Roman god of wine, has a very complicated mythology, but in one version of his story he was torn apart by the Titans, but Zeus was able to save his heart which he mixed into a drink and fed to the mortal woman Semele. She thus became pregnant and gave a second birth to Dionysus. This is reincarnation, not resurrection.
  • The spirit of the Roman emperor Augustus was supposedly seen ascending to heaven while his body was being cremated. This is not a resurrection story.
  • Adonis, the mortal lover of Aphrodite in Greek mythology, is not depicted as resurrecting until a story from the late second-century AD by Lucian, a full century after the gospels. Also, that story more resembles an ascension to heaven than a physical resurrection.
  • The Greek god Attis was said to have gone insane and emasculated himself. Flowers grew from the blood and he was reincarnated as a pine tree. Only after Christianity, in the third century or later, does the cult of Attis start to talk of physical resurrection. Attis was influenced by Christ, not the other way around.
  • I can find no evidence that the Babylonian god Marduk either died or was resurrected in any of the many versions of his mythology. The connection with Jesus is just made up.
  • Tammuz, the Sumerian god of shepherds, was killed by raiders from the nether world and is said to return to life with the cycles of vegetation. He is never resurrected in his previous form.
  • The Egyptian fertility god Osiris was killed by his jealous brother who chopped up his body into pieces. Then the goddess Isis, his sister/wife, reassembled and reanimated him. He thus became Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, a sort of zombie king. He never returned to earth.
  • Lastly, Egyptian god of the sky Horus never died or was resurrected. As far as I can tell online skeptics simply took the debunked theories of a nineteenth-century poet, “spiritualist”, and Egypt-enthusiast named Gerald Massey at face value without doing any research.

In short, the apostles were not writing in a “resurrection style” because such a style did not yet exist.

Does the Mythic Theory align with the facts?

Facts #1-3: As I have just shown, the message that the disciples declared bears no resemblance to earlier pagan myths. If anything, the pagan resurrection stories borrowed from Christianity, not vice versa. The idea that a bunch of Jews, steeped in monotheism from birth, preaching to a bunch of other Jews, would re-purpose pagan myths to deify their rabbi is laughable. Fact #4: Am I supposed to believe that skeptics like Paul, the Pharisee to end all Pharisees, and Jesus’ own brother were converted by pagan mythology with a little Jewish seasoning? Give me a break. Fact #5: The only way to believe the disciples would die for something they knew to be a myth is if they were in the midst of utter delusion, a theory dealt with below. Otherwise, it makes no sense whatsoever. I really have no time for this theory, which is usually promulgated by somebody who has done a quick Google search and read a couple of Wikipedia pages. Get back to me when you have historic, primary source evidence for your claims.

Theory 2.1: The Disciples Stole the Body

As we saw in my last post, this is the theory offered by early skeptics of the resurrection. The disciples did not want three years of their lives to have been wasted (the sunk-cost fallacy) and to look like fools, so they stole the body from Jesus’ tomb under cover of darkness and then made up a story about his resurrection. A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth, and so it was with the “resurrection” of Jesus.

Does the Conspiracy Theory align with the facts?

This theory, of course, explains Fact #6, so let’s move on to Fact #1: Conspiracies require a very small group of people to be “in the know”. Yet Paul claims that, in addition to the disciples, 500 others saw him alive and that some of those people were still alive when he was writing in AD 53 or 54 (1 Cor. 15:6). Were all of them in on it? Furthermore, the disciples could not even keep Judas from betraying them while Jesus was still alive. Are we to believe that these country bumpkins suddenly became genius conspirators overnight? As Chuck Colson liked to point out, the Watergate conspiracy that he was a part of, which involved only a handful of intelligent and powerful men, fell apart in two weeks! All that said, while it is very unlikely, this fact is at least possibly accounted for by a conspiracy theory. Fact #2: Why would conspirators make up the idea that women found the empty tomb? You would not want anyone to have reason to question or investigate your story and this fact would be a huge red flag. I cannot see any reason they would have made this up. Fact #3: If you are going to start a cult based on a lie, you had better do it far away from where your leader was killed in humiliating fashion. Cults generally separate people from society and anyone who can disprove their theories in order to control the information they receive. However, we see the opposite happen with Christianity. The disciples preached in Jerusalem (directly to the Sanhedrin no less!) and in other large cities. On top of that, they included the conspiracy theory in one of their gospel accounts (Matthew 28:12-13), which would be an insane thing to do if you were trying to hide the fact. Lastly, how did they get the body of Jesus out of the city when it was swelling with pilgrims for Passover? Where could they stash it that it would not be found? All this does not even mention that Jews consider touching a dead body to make a person unclean (Num. 19:11). None of this adds up. Fact #4: Paul and James likely suspected that the resurrection story was a lie made up by the disciples. Something else must explain why they changed their mind. Fact #5: Here is the big problem with this theory. As I have said, people will die for a falsehood they believe, but nobody dies for something they know to be a lie. Even if you believe that some of them could, do you really think that all of the disciples held out through torture and persecution with none of them breaking and admitting “we made it all up”? Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. This brings up the issue of motive. People who start a conspiracy usually do so to get something — money, power, fame, sex. What did the disciples get? Social ostracism, persecution, torture, and death. Even the power of delusion and the comfort of community cannot hope to overcome these disincentives. As a historian I can say that it’s almost never a conspiracy theory. In this case, such a theory does not line up with several important facts.

Theory 2.2: The Disciples were Deceived

There are two versions of this theory that I am combining here. The first states that grave robbers stole the body of Jesus and the disciples were thus duped into believing that Jesus had risen again. The other version says that the women and the disciples went to the wrong tomb and finding said tomb empty believed it to be evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. This is why I say you should always double-check where you put a body before starting a new religion.

Does the Deception Theory align with the facts?

Once again, Fact #6 is explained by this theory. So, Fact #1: The disciples did not believe the resurrection on account of the empty tomb. Upon seeing the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene assumed that someone had stolen the body and Peter did not immediately believe either (John 20:1-10). Thomas did not even believe when the disciples told him that they had seen Jesus. An empty tomb by itself was not enough to convince the disciples of the resurrection. Indeed, their proclamation was not an empty tomb, but a risen Lord. Fact #2: In addition, Luke tells us that the disciples did not initially believe the women (Luke 24:11). Here would be a good place to point out that the gospels make a point to tell us whose tomb Jesus was buried in (Joseph of Arimathea) and that Mary Magdalene and another Mary saw where he was laid (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). That the women would somehow forget where the tomb was a day later strains credulity to say the least. Fact #3: If the “grave robbing” theory were correct, one assumes the robbers would have eventually fessed up, to brag if for no other reason. Also, as I said, conspiracies are almost always uncovered eventually. If the “wrong tomb” theory happened, the Jewish leaders could have just gone to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb and pointed out the error. Fact #4: Paul and James would not have been convinced of resurrection, even if they were shown an empty tomb. They too could have suspected grave robbing. Only an appearance could have changed their minds. Fact #5: It is hard to imagine that all of the disciples suffered what they did with such scant evidence as an empty tomb. Even so, this fact could be explained by the theory, if barely. In conclusion, I don’t know of any scholar who takes either of these theories seriously. The disciples were uneducated, but they weren’t idiots. Let’s move on.

Theory 3.1: The Disciples Were Hallucinating

This theory has become very popular in recent skeptical scholarship. Hallucinatory visions of Jesus are said to have caused the disciples to believe he had returned from the dead. This would explain the sincerity and intensity of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection story.

Analyzing the Hallucination Theory

Hallucinations are false perceptions, that is, sensory experiences that occur in the absence of sensory stimulation. They are usually associated with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or drug or alcohol use. However, they can also be triggered by intense emotional distress such as grief or post-traumatic stress disorder, which the disciples might have experienced. That said, there are a number of problems with applying a hallucination to the evidence we have. First off, according to psychologists Gary Sibcy (see Licona, TROJ, p.484) and Gary Collins (see Habermas, CFRJ, p.303, n.4), and in my (admittedly limited) survey of the professional literature, there is no evidence of the existence of group hallucinations. In the words of a scholarly book on the topic: “hallucinatory and related perceptual experiences are essentially private and subjective. That is, at the instant in time at which the experience occurs, no other person shares the same experience” (Slade and Bentall, Sensory Deception, qtd. in John J. Johnson [see sources below]). In a study of Navy SEALs during “Hell Week”, where the recruits are deprived of sleep and food and put through traumatic exercises, 75% of candidates reported experiencing hallucinations (see Habermas, CFRJ, p.107). Yet none of them reported having the same hallucination, even though most of the recruits experienced them during an exercise when they were set adrift in the middle of the ocean on a raft. For example, one recruit saw a train coming out of the water, while another saw an octopus waving at him (!), yet nobody else saw the same thing. Given all this information, it is highly unlikely that all eleven of the disciples would have had the same hallucination at the same time with Jesus doing and saying the same thing.

Secondly, multi-sensory hallucinations are exceedingly rare. Most hallucinations are auditory, some are visual or tactile, a rare few include taste or smell, but none include all of the above. Furthermore, visual hallucinations are usually in black-and-white, and so terrifying that most who experience them are reluctant to tell anyone. The apostles’ accounts of seeing Jesus involve seeing and hearing him; eating with him; and spending time with him in multiple locations over a long period of time in different states of mind. And, far from being traumatized, they were energized to tell everyone they met about what they saw. This does not line up with how the psychological literature understands hallucinations in the slightest.

Thirdly, while there are rare instances of hallucinations brought on by the power of suggestion, this doesn’t really line up with our facts. Gerd Ludemann opines that Peter, wracked with guilt and grief, hallucinated seeing the Lord individually and then convinced the other disciples to “see” Jesus (this story conveniently omits Mary Magdalene). The problem here is that for such an event to occur the hallucinators must have expected to see Jesus again, which the disciples embarrassingly admit that they did not, and the suggestible hallucinators are usually informed of the possibility of seeing the hallucination beforehand, which the disciples were not (see Lyndon and Corlett article in sources). But this gets into the realm of “mass hysteria”, which I will deal with below. Let’s move on to the facts.

Does the Hallucination Theory align with the facts?

Despite its problems, this theory could explain the reports of the women (Fact #2), if they were the ones who hallucinated first, and the willingness of the disciples to preach in Jerusalem (Fact #3) and be martyred (Fact #5), if they truly believed they saw the Lord. However, there are still the other data points. Fact #1: As we have already established, the disciples insisted that the appearances of Jesus were physical and bodily. The disciples were well aware of, and believed in, spiritual visions (see Matt. 1:20; 2:13; Luke 1:5-23; Acts 9:10-16; 10:9-17; 18:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:1-10; Rev. 1). Look at the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12. First off, Peter doesn’t believe he’s actually escaping prison, but thinks he’s having a vision (v.9). When Peter arrives at the gate to Mark’s house, the servant girl Rhoda tells the other Christians in the house about it and they assume that she is either out of her mind or “it must be his angel” (v. 15). Ancient people knew the difference between a physical person and a spiritual being. And all the accounts of Jesus’ appearance are physical. Furthermore, are we to believe that 500 people participated in this hallucination? On top of that, these hallucinations happened in the daytime and the nighttime, inside and outside, to individuals and to groups, to women and to men, and even on schedule (Matt. 28:16). This is not how hallucinations work. Fact #4: The hallucinatory ramblings of a group of Galilean bumpkins would not have convinced either Paul or James to convert. Even if you want to argue that Paul’s encounter with Jesus was itself a hallucination, he does not fit the profile of one who would be suggested into such an experience. He was self-righteously content in his life of persecuting Christians, feeling neither guilt, grief, shame, nor PTSD. As for James, he may have been grieving for his brother, but he had no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead. If either man had a dream, they would have called it a dream and written it off. Something else must have happened. Fact #6: Even if the women, the disciples, Paul, and James all experienced hallucinations, it still would not explain the empty tomb. And once again, if they were preaching in Jerusalem about the risen Lord and the tomb was not empty, the Jewish authorities could just point to the still-sealed tomb to shut them up. That nobody did this is evidence that the tomb was empty and thus the hallucination explanation does not account for this fact. In conclusion, the hallucination theory does not account for key facts and requires us to ignore too much scientific literature.

Theory 3.2: The Disciples were in the grip of Delusion or Mass Hysteria

Delusions are false beliefs that are clung to in the teeth of contrary evidence, such as a widow insisting that her husband is still alive while sitting next to his cold corpse. Mass hysteria (or, more scientifically, mass psychogenic illness) doesn’t really fit the resurrection since its about the appearance of a physical illness in multiple people brought on by suggestion rather than a medical cause. However, it can also include such widespread phenomena as belief in “phantom killers”, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abductions. Perhaps the disciples were in the grip of some kind of similar hysteria or delusion.

Analyzing the Delusion/Hysteria Theory

In 1879, on a rainy night in the village of Knock in County Mayo, Ireland, villager Mary Byrne saw an apparition of three figures on the gable of the local church. A group from the village gathered and soon they all agreed that the three figures were the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist. A farmer who was a half mile away claimed to see a shining light over the church. As many as 25 people gathered for nearly two hours, praying the rosary and gazing upon the beatific sight. It is these sort of scenarios that people have in mind when positing the mass hysteria theory. However, there are problems with the correlation. The visions at Knock occurred in the rain at night, when your eyes can play tricks on you. The apparitions did not speak or move and the vision was confined to a single location and a limited period of time. Lastly, the visions occurred to people who were primed to have these sort of miraculous encounters. None of these facts line up with the gospel accounts of the resurrection, which occurred at different times of day in different locations, were multi-sensory, and experienced by those who were not expecting it. Also, many of these kind of visions include a natural phenomenon such as a bright light (like the farmer saw), which perhaps prompted the crowd to see something. We have no similar reports surrounding Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

The real problem with this theory is that the result of mass delusion events don’t line up with the results of the resurrection. First off, mass hysteria always ends in tears. Just look at the Salem Witch Trials for an example of that, or the deadly ends of the cults of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Secondly, mass hysteria eventually dies out. One researcher notes how a Sasquatch sighting hysteria “dies a natural death” because believers fail to produce “even a shred of credible evidence regarding the existence of Bigfoot…outbreaks of collective delusion seem to have within them the seeds of their own destruction” (qtd. in John J. Johnson, p. 236). Third, mass hysteria that is centered on a charismatic, messianic leader dies with said leader. “When the pathological leader is removed the pathological spell seems to disappear. Every mass delusion, however intense, disappears once its cause is eliminated” (A.M. Meerloo, qtd in ibid. p. 237). None of this lines up with the resurrection movement, which produced many positive societal benefits, only got bigger over time, and only began after the death of the messiah.

Does the Delusion/Hysteria Theory align with the facts?

This theory could possibly account for facts 2 & 3. I’ve already covered the problems around fact #1. The nature of the disciples encounters with the Lord do not smack of mass hysteria. If based on delusion, said delusions would have included over 500 people, a highly-improbably occurrence. Fact #4: Paul and James had no reason to be delusional about Jesus and would have no motive to get caught up in mass hysteria. They were whatever the opposite of a “true believer” is. Fact #5: I find it difficult to believe that intense persecution would not have broken the spell of delusion or hysteria for at least some of the disciples. Again, if it was all just a mind trick, that not a single person in that group defected (a new “Judas”, if you will) is hard to believe. Fact #6: If the tomb had a body in it, mass hysteria could be easily dispelled. Some disciples might have held on to their delusions, but the Church would have been strangled in its cradle. If the tomb was empty, this theory is just wrong. In short, while this theory seems appealingly “scientific”, a closer examination reveals major and insurmountable flaws.

Theory 4: Some Combination of the Previous Theories Explains the Evidence

Skeptical scholars, including Bart Ehrman and Gerd Ludemann, generally posit complex combinations of the preceding theories when attempting to debunk the resurrection. I’ve already alluded to Ludemann’s theory above. Ehrman posits a theory that the disciples preached that Jesus was vindicated in heaven (Metaphor Theory), which turned into the idea over time that he was resurrected and would soon inaugurate a Messianic kingdom (Embellishment Theory), which caused some people to make up visions and others (like Paul) to begin having real “visions” of the resurrected Jesus (Hallucination and Hysteria Theories). Ehrman accounts for the empty tomb problem by bizarrely claiming that the body had already completely decomposed by the time the resurrection story got going. Rather than a pure version of any of the previous theories, this is the sort of theory you will encounter from academic skeptics.

Analyzing Combination Theories

The main problem with combination theories is the improbability involved. If you flip a nickel once, you have a 50% chance of landing on heads. If you flip it twice, you have a 25% chance of landing on heads both times. The same applies to adding theories together — they actually become less probable as you add them together. Of course, Ehrman would argue that resurrection is the most unlikely theory of all. Except that I have already argued that God’s existence is plausible and that the gospel accounts are reliable by any historical standard. I am only positing one unlikely thing: that a man who claimed to be God and claimed he would rise from the dead did in fact do so. And that theory actually aligns with all the facts! Meanwhile, Ehrman’s theory requires a bunch of increasingly unlikely things to have to be true all at once, as long as we disregard all the most reliable primary sources and basic scientific facts about the decomposition of corpses. So which of us is peddling improbabilities?

The second problem is that the combination theories fall into the traps that each individual theory does. For example, in Ehrman’s theory, I can debunk it at the very start by pointing out that the disciples preached a bodily resurrection of Jesus less than a decade after his death. As for Ludemann’s theory, it leans heavily on the concept of group hallucinations, which are refuted in the two sections above this one. Cobbling together multiple faulty theories does not a good theory make.

Lastly, these theories suffer a major case of the ad hoc fallacy. That is, they are theories made up to support a conclusion rather than conclusions developed based on the data. The authors of these theories merely assert that their version of the story must be true because resurrection from the dead cannot happen. Thus, a story made up with little to no data to support it is better than the resurrection theory because at least it could have happened. This is borderline scholarly malpractice. In short, I won’t go over every possible combination of the above theories or we’ll be here all day. Suffice it to say, each combination theory fails at various points to account for the bare facts of the case.

Conclusion

I have not covered every possible theory about what happened on that early Sunday morning in Jerusalem in the spring in the early 30s AD. Some non-Christians who are willing to engage with the spiritual and paranormal offer increasingly-outlandish ideas that no scholar would take seriously. (Maybe Jesus was an extraterrestrial who came to earth to mess with humans –the star of Bethlehem was a spaceship and Jesus’ ascension was just him returning to his home planet!) I have offered what I consider the most plausible theories about the resurrection story and tried to treat each one seriously and fairly. However, each of these theories fails to account for multiple attested facts about the event and none of them can explain the mass conversion of Gentiles, the willingness of Jews to abandon their faith and practice, or the birth of the Church in general. We are left with one inescapable and awesome conclusion. We will wrap up with that on Saturday. Until then, may you all have a blessed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday!

Sources

Once again, the indispensable source on this subject, which I cribbed from liberally, was Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. See the source notes on my previous post for additional resources.

On hallucinations, I consulted the article on “Hallucinations” in Paul Moglia, ed. Salem Health: Psychology and Behavioral Health (Ipswich [MA]: Salem Press, 2015) Vol. 2, pp.859-861; and John J. Johnson “Were the Resurrection Appearances Hallucinations? Some Psychiatric and Psychological Considerations” Churchman, Autumn 2001, pp.227-238

For more on the science of hallucinations and mass hysteria:

Andre Aleman and Frank Laroi, Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception (Washington [DC]: APA, 2008)

Stanley Lyndon and Philip R. Corlett. “Hallucinations in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Insights from Predictive Coding.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 129, no. 6 (August 2020): 534–43.

A.M. Meerloo, Delusion and Mass Delusion: Nervous and Mental Disease Mongraphs, No. 79 (New York: Smith Ely Jelliffe Trust, 1949)

Peter B. Slade and Richard P. Bentall, Sensory Deception: A Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988);

James R. Steward, “Sasquatch Sighting in North Dakota: An Analysis of an Episode of Collective Delusion,” in Exploring the Paranormal: Perspectives on Belief and Experience, George K. Zollschan et.al. (eds.) (Gard City Park [NY]: Avery Publishing Group, 1989)

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 1: The Facts

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15:17-19 (ESV)

The resurrection of Jesus is at the very center of the Christian faith. Paul summarizes “the word of faith that we proclaim” in this way: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). When the indignant Jewish authorities ask for a sign to accompany his cleansing of the temple, Jesus answers: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John goes on to explain that “he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:21-22). In other words, when asked for evidence to back up his grandiose claims, Jesus simply predicted his own resurrection. The greatest proof that Jesus is who the gospels say he is comes in the form of his resurrected body. This puts Christianity in a unique position. The truth of our faith, the entire basis for our hope, is founded upon the historical reality of a risen Lord. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was a liar with delusions of grandeur who should be mocked and ignored. If he did rise, then we must follow Paul’s advice and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. So let us carefully look into the historical evidence for this momentous event and see if it holds up to scrutiny. As always, I will be treating the gospels as historical sources whose facts must be confirmed, not as divine revelation. Let’s begin by establishing a few facts that almost all scholars of the ancient world would agree upon.

Fact #1: Jesus was crucified and died

This is the most uncontroversial fact we will encounter. The resurrection skeptics we will meet from Bart Ehrman to Gerd Ludemann to John Dominc Crossan all agree that Jesus died via crucifixion. Crossan says “that [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145). Not only is the crucifixion recorded in all four gospels, Jesus’ execution is also attested by non-Christian authors Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus, and Mara bar Serapion. Keep in mind that crucifixion was a gruesome, humiliating, and torturous form of death reserved for the worst of criminals (slaves, rebels, the treasonous). Cicero said that Roman citizens should not speak or even think of “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” (Against Verres 2.5.64, 165). The Jewish scriptures say that those who are hung from a tree are cursed by God (Deut. 21:23) and the Jewish leaders certainly viewed Jesus’ death as a sign of God’s disfavor. In short, there is no reason to believe that the Church would have invented this method, out of all executions, as the one by which their Lord would die.

There is a theory that Jesus did not actually die upon the cross, but merely fell into a coma and revived later, only to convince the disciples that he was risen. Let’s start with the fact that Jesus would have been close to death even before being nailed to the cross due to his receiving 39 lashes with a Roman flagellum (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1). Once upon the cross, severe blood loss would ensue, along with dehydration and slow asphyxiation as exhaustion would eventually cause the victim not to be able to push up (painfully) on the nails to get a gasp of air. The gospel of John also tells us that Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear to make sure that he was dead “and at once there came out blood and water” (19:34). This was probably the result of the spear rupturing the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart, causing onlookers to see both blood and clear pericardial fluid. Such a piercing would mean certain death. Keep in mind that these trained Roman soldiers knew how to kill people and had seen their share of dead bodies. Even if he somehow survived crucifixion, are we supposed to believe that Jesus, in his severely emaciated state, moved the stone from in front of the tomb (a job usually performed by multiple healthy men), got past trained guards, figured out where the disciples were hiding, and walked the many blocks to get there on wounded feet? Even if he somehow managed that, would the disciples have seen this pathetic husk of a man as a triumphant, resurrected messiah? More likely, they would have seen it as a miracle that he survived crucifixion and rushed him to a doctor. The “swoon theory” stretches plausibility to the breaking point. I’ll instead stick with the nearly-unanimous opinion of ancient scholars who agree that Jesus died by crucifixion.

Fact #2: Jesus was buried

All four gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Receiving the body, he had it wrapped in a linen shroud and laid it in a newly-hewn tomb in which no one else had been laid. Mary Magdalene and another Mary (not Jesus’ mother) were listed as present for the burial. However, skeptics like Ehrman and Crossan assert that the Romans would have just left the body to rot on the cross, or, at best, thrown the body in a ditch to be eaten by animals. Both of these treatments of crucifixion victims are attested by primary sources. However, these sources do not speak specifically about Roman practice in Judea. Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC-AD 50) wrote of how the Jews appealed to Pontius Pilate (over a different matter) “not to make any alteration in their national customs, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king or emperor” (On the Embassy to Gaius, 300). In other words, the Romans usually let the Jews keep their customs (see also Josephus, Against Apion 2.73; Jewish Wars 2.220). And Jewish law required that a body hung from a tree must be buried in order to not defile the land (Deut. 21:22-23). Indeed, Josephus confirms this specifically about crucifixion: “the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (Jewish War, 4.5.2). Philo (On Joseph, 25) and the book of Tobit also speak of the importance to Jews of burying all dead bodies. In fact, there is archaeological evidence of a Jewish crucifixion victim being buried. A 1st century ossuary containing the bones of a man named Johanan ben Ha-galgula has a nail used in crucifixions lodged firmly in the heel. Indeed, while many Roman sources report crucifixion victims being left in place, others also report that family members could request the body for burial. Taken together, all this indicates that Jesus could have been buried.

As for positive evidence that Jesus was buried, first of all we have the multiple attestation of all four gospels as well as Acts (see 13:29) and 1 Corinthians 15:4. That 1 Corinthinans passage, as we shall see below, is generally thought to be a creed dating to less than a decade from Jesus’ death and the word for “buried” in it (Gr. etaphe) specifically means to inter a body in a tomb. Secondly, the disciples had no reason to make up a burial account — Jesus had already been humiliated on the cross and the resurrection account does not require a proper burial (indeed, the prophecy in Isaiah 53:9 could be seen as predicting his burial in a mass grave). Third, Pilate would probably have not wanted to keep the body of such a notorious traitor on the cross during the Sabbath on Passover. He was skating on thin ice with both the Jewish leaders and the emperor back in Rome, so he likely would have wanted this problem out of his hair and to avoid unrest during a major Jewish festival. Fourth, why would the gospel authors make up the fact that a member of the Sanhedrin, the very group that just condemned Jesus to death, was the one whose tomb was used? It is an embarrassing admission by the gospel authors that they left it to a member of a group they despised to bury their Lord, with only women to look on. There is also no competing early Christian tradition about the fate of Jesus’ body after his death. Taken together, I see no reason to doubt the basic facts about Jesus’ burial as recorded in the gospels.

Fact #3: The Disciples Believed that Jesus Rose from the Dead and Appeared to Them

The most important fact pointing to the resurrection is the simple truth that the disciples believed and proclaimed it. This is agreed upon by almost all scholars, secular and religious, due to the fact that it is attested in eight different ancient sources. (1) The apostle Paul, who knew Peter, James, and John as well as Jesus’ brother James (see Acts 9:26-30; 15:1-35 & Gal. 1:18-19; ch. 2). Paul’s authority to speak on behalf of the apostles is confirmed in the writings of the apostle John’s disciple Polycarp (Phil. 3:2; 12:1) as well as apostolic fathers Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Romans 4:3) and Clement of Rome (1 Clem. 5:3-5). In both First Corinthians (15:9-11) and Galatians (2:1-10), Paul proclaims that he heard from the apostles directly the message that he preached, i.e. that Jesus was resurrected. (2) Early oral tradition. This includes early creeds and hymns recorded in the New Testament. By far the most important is the creed recorded in First Corinthians 15. I will include it here, as we will be returning to it frequently.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Gerd Ludemann, in his skeptical analysis of the resurrection stories (see sources) makes the surprising admission that this creed shows evidence of oral tradition of a catechetical nature and probably dates from Paul’s conversion, within two or three years of Jesus’ death. The use of the Aramaic “Cephas” for Peter, the parallelisms in the text, and the use of many non-Pauline terms all point to this being the case. Many scholars believe that Paul received this creed from Peter and James in Jerusalem at that time, which means the creed would have been formulated no later than two years after Jesus’ death. If nothing else, First Corinthians is an undisputed Pauline epistle written in AD 53 or 54, and so Paul received this teaching less than 20 years after Jesus’ death. This creedal affirmation of the resurrection is thus clearly of apostolic origin. (3) Sermons in Acts (see chs. 1-2, 10, 13, 17) that date to the earliest formation of the Church. These sermons similarly appear to be based on an oral, catachetical tradition. They also, like First Corinthians 15, assert that Jesus appeared not just to individuals but to groups of people. (4), (5) & (6) Matthew, Luke, and John (also Mark, if you accept the longer ending). Of course, the canonical gospels contain stories of Jesus appearing to the apostles. I hope I have demonstrated in this series that the gospels should be trusted as sources, especially since they date to 25 to 65 years after Jesus’ death. (7) Clement (c.35-99) was bishop of Rome from AD 88 to 99. He was consecrated by the first bishop of Rome, the apostle Peter. Both Ireneaus (Against Heresies 3.3.3) and Tertullian (Prescription Against Heretics 32) confirm that Clement knew the apostles. In his epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated to around AD 95, the bishop writes: “Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, [the apostles] went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come” (42:3). Thus, Clement gives us extra-biblical confirmation of the apostolic preaching of the resurrection. Lastly, (8) Polycarp (c.69-155) was a disciple of John the apostle who consecrated him bishop of Smyrna. Ireneaus (Ag. Her. 3.3.4) confirms that the bishop knew the apostles. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Jesus five times in his Epistle to the Philippians (c. 135-137), for example: “in faith and righteousness, and that [Paul and the apostles] are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead” (9:2). In summary, this overwhelming amount of early evidence of apostolic preaching of the resurrection gives us confidence that the apostles believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them.

Aside: The Apostolic Proclamation of a Bodily Resurrection

When I say that Jesus “appeared” to the disciples, it may seem that I am saying that the disciples saw a vision. We will deal with theories involving visions and hallucinations in the next post, but for now I want to settle the fact that the apostles preached a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps here would be a good place to list all of the resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • Mary Magdalene and the other women (Matt. 28:9-10; John 20:11-18; Mark 16:9-11)
  • Two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32; Mark 16:12-13)
  • Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)
  • Ten disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25)
  • Eleven disciples in the upper room (John 20:26-29; 1 Cor. 15:5; Mark 16:14)
  • Seven disciples fishing (John 21:1-23)
  • Eleven disciples on a mountain (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18)
  • 500 others at one time (1 Cor. 15:5)
  • James, brother of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7)
  • Disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:3-8)

As you can see, multiple people both individually and in groups, scheduled and unscheduled, in various states of mind and over a long period of time, saw the risen Lord. And these witnesses go out of the way to show that Jesus had a physical body. First off, almost none of them immediately recognize Jesus, but then have an “ah-ha!” moment of recognition, which lines up with Paul’s comparison of the earthly body with the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:35-38). Secondly, Matthew records the women touching Jesus (28:9), while both Luke and John record him as eating and drinking (see Luke 24:30; John 21:9-13). Luke’s gospel makes this as overt as possible:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

Luke 24:38-42

Notice that Jesus says unequivocally that he’s not a ghost (or “spirit”). As the story of Jesus walking on the water demonstrates, the disciples knew the difference between a ghost and a physical person (Matt. 14:26). Third, we have the story of “doubting Thomas” in John 20:24-29, where Thomas actually puts his hand in Jesus’ nail and spear wounds. I’m not sure how much more explicit you want the apostles to get in their message.

If that’s not enough, we have further confirmation from Peter and Paul. Peter says that they “ate and drank” with Jesus after his resurrection (Acts 10:41) and contrasts King David’s dead and decaying body with Jesus’ risen body (Acts 2:25-32). Meanwhile, Paul declares that in Jesus the deity dwells “bodily” (Col. 2:9), and says that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). In other words, Christ was raised bodily, so we can be assured of a bodily resurrection. The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus was the resurrection of a physical, flesh-and-blood, human body.

Fact #4: The Gospels report that Women Discovered the Empty Tomb

All four gospels (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-2) report that the first people to encounter the empty tomb and the risen Lord were women. Now, in Jewish culture, the testimony of women was not trusted. To wit:

  • But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15)
  • The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women (Jerusalem Torah, Sotah 3:4, 19a)
  • It is impossible for the world to exist without males and without females, yet fortunate is he whose children are males, and woe is he whose children are females. (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)
  • The oath of testimony is practiced with regard to men but not with regard to women (Talmud, Shevuot 30a)

Even in Luke, it says that the disciples dismissed the women’s story of the empty tomb as “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11). Indeed, the pagan critic Celsus used the women’s testimony as evidence against the resurrection: “when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who beheld this? A half-frantic woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion” (qtd. in Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.55). This is why scholar N.T. Wright says that “to put Mary Magdalene [at the empty tomb] is, from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot. But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would have never, never made this up” (There is a God, p. 207).

Fact #5: The Resurrection was first Proclaimed in Jerusalem

Historians agree that the resurrection message was first preached in Jerusalem. This is attested in multiple sources from Acts (ch. 2 and following), to Paul’s letters (especially 1 Cor. 15 and Galatians 2:1,9), and even to pagan author Tacitus, who called Judea “the home of the disease” (Annals 15.44). If you want to start a cult claiming your dead leader is actually alive, it wouldn’t be prudent to begin that cult in the very city where everyone just saw your leader die. Yet that is exactly what the disciples did. Furthermore, they would have known that such a message would be inviting persecution and social ostracism, and they preached the message anyway. Any theory regarding the resurrection must come to terms with this fact.

Fact #6: The Conversion of Skeptics like Paul and James

The conversion of the apostle Paul from an enemy of Jesus and persecutor of the Church into one of Christ’s most ardent advocates is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. Paul recounts his conversion in numerous letters including First Corinthians (15:9-10), Galatians (1:13-16), and Philippians (3:6-7). Of course, Luke records his conversion and Paul’s proclamation of that conversion in the book of Acts (chs. 9, 22 & 26). In Galatians, Paul mentions that his reputation preceded him in Judea with rumors wildly circulating that “he who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (1:23). This points to an early oral tradition about Paul’s conversion. All of this resulted, according to Paul, from an encounter with the risen Lord. There is no reason to believe that he would make any of this up, especially since he is portrayed as giving help to those who killed Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58) Even skeptics admit that something must have caused Paul to change course so drastically.

Similarly, James the brother of Jesus was not a follower of Jesus during his crucifixion (see Mark 3:21, 31-35; 6:3-4; John 7:5). Yet we see that the early leader of the church in Jerusalem was Jesus’ brother James. This conversion (and later martyrdom) is attested by Paul’s letter to the Galatians (1:19; 2:9-12), in the early creed quoted by Paul (1 Cor. 15:7), by early Church father Clement of Alexandria (qtd. in Eusebius, Ecc. Hist., 2.1), and even in the work of Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20.9.1). No early Christian would dare to say that one of their most important leaders, and a blood relation of the Lord to boot, started out as an unbeliever unless it were true. That is why scholars accept that this conversion story must be true and must be accounted for in any theory about the resurrection.

Fact #7: The Disciples Suffered Persecution and Martyrdom for Proclaiming the Resurrection

That the disciples went to their deaths proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus is attested by seven ancient sources. (1) The Acts of the Apostles records Peter and John being imprisoned (ch. 4) and flogged (ch.5), and the the martyrdom of the apostle James, the brother of John (ch. 12). All this was done while they preached the resurrection (see 4:2, 33). (2) Clement of Rome writes the following in his epistle to the Corinthians:

Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.

1 Clement 5:2-7

(3) Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who almost certainly knew the apostles, writes the following in a letter to the church at Smyrna: “When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit. And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors.” (3:2-3). According to Ignatius, their witness of the resurrection made the apostles brave in the face of death. (4) Polycarp: in the quote already given above (under fact #3), he mentions the suffering of Paul and the apostles. As you might know, Polycarp would himself become a legendary martyr for the faith. (5) Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155-220) is often called the father of Latin Christianity. He reports the following:

That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.

Scorpiace, 15

Notice that Tertullian appeals to the Roman archives and the work of Roman historians. The suffering of the apostles was a matter of public record. (6) Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253) records the apostles as teaching “a doctrine which they would not have taught with such courage had they invented the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; and who also, at the same time, not only prepared others to despise death, but were themselves the first to manifest their disregard for its terrors” (Contra Celsum 2.56). Jesus “led His disciples to believe in His resurrection, and so thoroughly persuaded them of its truth, that they show to all men by their sufferings how they are able to laugh at all the troubles of life” (ibid. 2.77). (7) Dionysius, bishop of Corinth in the late second century, is recorded as saying the following by Eusebius: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time” (Ecc. Hist. 2.25.8).

All of this evidence points to the unmistakable conclusion that the disciples truly believed that they had seen the risen Lord. People will die for falsehoods and delusions, but they will not suffer and die for something they know to be a lie. They were willing to back up their claims by making the ultimate sacrifice.

(Fact #8: The Empty Tomb)

While the previous facts are nearly universally agreed upon, this fact is (understandably) more controversial. That said, according to an exhaustive study of the literature by scholar Gary Habermas, 75% of critical scholars consider Jesus’ empty tomb to be a historical fact. There is a strong historical and logical case for believing the tomb to be empty. First off, of course, the empty tomb is attested in all four gospels (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-9), which are our best primary sources on the matter. Secondly, we have already seen that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem. If the tomb was not empty, the Jewish authorities would only have to point to the tomb or even produce the body to disprove these claims. Instead, multiple sources tell us that the Jews claimed that the disciples stole the body. Just to give three examples we have (1) Matthew 28:12-13: “And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”; (2) Justin Martyr (c.100-165) records a Jewish debater as saying: “[Jesus’] disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, 108). (3) Tertullian records something similar: “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again” (De Spectaculis 30). We will cover this theory in more detail in the next post, but suffice it to say that the “stolen body theory” would not be circulating if the tomb was still closed. Third, remember that the disciples reported that women found the tomb, an unlikely thing to claim unless you were very confident that no one could produce better evidence. Lastly, there are no competing claims or evidence for the existence of a tomb containing the body of Jesus. The sensational discovery of a tomb called the “Jesus family tomb” in Talpiot (East Jerusalem) in 2007 turned out to have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, a conclusion supported by all serious archaeologists and linguistic and biblical scholars. In short, there is ample evidence supporting the conclusion made by the majority of biblical scholars (including secular scholars) that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. However, given that this fact is not as unanimously attested, I will take this piece of evidence with a grain of salt when testing theories.

Conclusion

The average laymen may be surprised to learn how many facts surrounding the resurrection story are confirmed by almost all biblical scholars, even the skeptical ones. With the baseline that Jesus was definitely dead and buried in a tomb, any theory about what actually happened in the days following Jesus’ death must account for these six facts:

  1. The disciples really believed that Jesus rose from the dead bodily
  2. It was reported that women were the first to discover the empty tomb
  3. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem immediately after the death of Jesus
  4. Skeptics like Paul and Jesus’ brother James were converted to Christianity
  5. The disciples (and Paul and James) suffered persecution and went to their death proclaiming the resurrection
  6. The tomb was empty (this fact alone will not be used to confirm or deny any particular theory)

In my next post, I will examine the various theories that have been offered to explain these perplexing facts.

Sources

Primary Sources:

Thanks again to newadvent.org for the texts from the early Church fathers. The Talmud texts were found at www.sefaria.org.

Secondary Sources Consulted:

By far the best source on this topic is Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004). I also consulted Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament; Bock and Wallace, Dethroning Jesus; Pitre, The Case for Jesus; and Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Secondary Sources for Further Research:

On the crucifixion of Jesus, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); Gerald S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); and William D. Edwards, et. al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255.11 (March 21, 1986), 1455-63.

On the burial of Jesus, see Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Byron R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg [PA]: Trinity Press, 2003); and Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32:1 (January/February 2006)

The best Christian scholarly sources on the resurrection include Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005); Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IVP, 2010); and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)

The skeptical sources cited above include John Dominc Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) and The Historical Jesus: The Life of Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014); and Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection Of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst [NY]: Prometheus, 2004)

Why Do So Many Scholars Doubt the Historical Reliability of the Gospels?

The gospels are the best documented sources from antiquity. They are dated within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events they record and demonstrate deep knowledge of the time and place. The four gospels are different enough that we should not suspect a conspiracy or cover-up, but similar enough that outright fabrication is unlikely. Comparing these works with the apocryphal gospels (which are obviously legendary accounts) only strengthens Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s claims to historicity and confirms the Church’s choice to canonize these four books as Scripture. Given all of this, why do so many historians simply dismiss the gospels as sources, or at least put very little trust in them? The answer is obvious: they contain miracles. In the canonical gospels, Jesus turns water into wine, heals the sick instantaneously, makes food appear out of thin air, walks on water, and even raises the dead. Most ludicrous of all, the four gospels tell us that Jesus himself was raised from the dead to an immortal life. Modern historians, indeed modern people, cannot believe in miracles and therefore, ipso facto, the gospel authors must be lying. So today I’m going to address the question of whether a historian should accept the possibility of miracles. If not, we will have to discard almost every source we have about Jesus and simply leave off our search with what the non-Christian sources told us in my first post. The pebble in history’s shoe will have to remain there indefinitely.

Aside #1: The Jefferson Option

Before we begin, I should address one way a historian could try to get around the problem of miracles in the gospels. I call this “the Jefferson option” after U.S. president and founding father Thomas Jefferson who published a book entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 in which he literally cut out the miracles and supernatural elements of the gospels with a razor blade and glued the remainder back together. Many people wish to do the same — cut out all of the miracles and stuff about demons and hell and just leave the moral teachings behind. While this would solve the problem, this is not a proper use of the historical method. By what standard are you cutting out a particular part of the text? Why should that part be considered a later fabrication while the teaching directly next to it is considered genuine? There is no basis in the manuscript evidence for doing so. Furthermore, the text itself considers the miracles and teachings to be indivisible. Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 (see also Luke 4:18-21) show how the teaching and miracles of Jesus were inextricable, while the gospel of John specifically uses the “signs” of Jesus to legitimize his message. Lastly, we have more outside confirmation of Jesus being a wonder-worker than we do of any particular teaching, as evidenced by the passages I quoted from Celsus, the Talmud, and Josephus. Their accusations that Jesus was a magician or a sorcerer or a wonder-worker must have some antecedent. In short, we cannot simply wish the miracles away and keep the rest of our knowledge about Jesus.

Isn’t Religion Dying Out?

The crux of the argument for why historians should dismiss miracles is that we’ve simply outgrown the belief in them as a society. Belief in miracles is outdated or, if you’re feeling racist, primitive. As we have grown more modern and more scientific, living in a secularized society, we have discarded the need for supernatural explanations and religion will die a natural death. The person who says this is showing themselves for what they are: an upper or middle class white person from Europe or America. If we look at global trends (click here for the data), the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to decline over the next three decades from 16.4% of the global population to 13.2%. Christians are expected to maintain their percentage of the global population (31.4%) while adding almost 750 million new members due to population growth. If you combine Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, over 61% of the world population is expected to believe in a monotheistic God in the year 2050 compared to 54.8% in 2010. Far from dying out, belief in the supernatural is gaining ground. As a case study, the most populous country in the world, China, has made religion illegal ever since the communist takeover in 1949. How is that going? Well, conservative estimates put the Christian population of the country in 2010 at 68 million people or 5% of the population. Experts now believe that China could have more Christians than the United States by 2030 and be a majority-Christian country by 2050 (see here). Even in America, 40% of people raised in nonreligious homes become religious (typically Christian) as adults, while only 20% of those raised Protestant become nonreligious (data here). In short, the secularization hypothesis simply does not line up with the facts.

Very well, the skeptic might say, but the vast majority of people are uneducated. Once people receive a better education, they reject belief in miracles. Even if we ignore the example of China I just gave, where educational attainment and Christian faith are growing in tandem, let’s just look at the secular West. Jews and Christians are both better educated and have a lower gender gap in education than the unaffiliated (data here). College educated Christians are equally as observant as Christians with less education, and are actually more likely to attend church weekly (data here). There is nothing beyond intellectual snobbery to the idea that more education means less faith. And I might also point out that 68% of self-identified atheists are men, and 78% are white (data here). That racial disparity shows in surveys of incoming college freshmen at all universities, where 60.2% identify as Christian and 30.2% as unaffiliated, when compared with historically black colleges and universities, where 85.2% of freshmen identify as Christian and 11.2% as unaffiliated (data here). In the words of Yale professor Stephen Carter, “around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color”. White college professors ought to be very careful about calling religious belief “backwards” in this context. In any case, all of this data should give the lie to the idea that we can just dismiss miracles because nobody believes in them anymore.

If God is Possible, So are Miracles

But should we give any credence to miracle claims? Is there any positive reason to believe that the miracles in the gospels could have happened? Perhaps we should define what “miracle” even means. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this wonderfully comprehensive definition:

A marvellous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or of some supernatural being; chiefly, an act (e.g. of healing) exhibiting control over the laws of nature, and serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or is specially favoured by God.

OED, Vol. IX, pp. 835-836

In other words, miracles are the intervention of God into the natural world that disrupt the natural order of the world. If the natural world is the result of the purposeful creation of a transcendent God, the idea that natural laws could be broken is not impossible. Arguing the existence of God is beyond the purview of this series and, in reality, is beside the point for this argument. You only have to acknowledge that the existence of God is possible in order to accept that miracles could be possible as well. The vast majority of atheist philosophers do not argue that God is logically impossible, but merely not likely. Theists would counter with a number of arguments: from the need for the universe to have a non-contingent cause (the cosmological argument) and an explanation for its beginning (the kalam cosmological argument) to the fine-tuning and order of the universe and the irreducible complexity of many natural phenomena (the teleological argument) to the universal sense of right-and-wrong found in humanity (the moral argument) to the existence of consciousness that seems to exist outside of matter (the hard problem of consciousness) to the very idea of God creating the necessity for His existence (the ontological argument). None of these prove the existence of God, but they certainly point to a reality outside of the merely material. There are many positive reasons to believe in a transcendent God and thus many positive reasons to take miracle claims seriously.

Naturalism as the Default

The problem with all this lies in the fact that the modern academy takes a naturalistic view of the world as the default position. Belief that all historical realities must be explicable through naturalistic causes blinds modern scholars to any other possibility. They will accuse anyone who wishes to offer a supernatural explanation of events of putting a “God-in-the-gaps” of our historical knowledge. In general, I would agree that postulating God’s miraculous intervention into every lacuna of historical knowledge would be just as dishonest as the History Channel’s bizarre insistence on attributing every unexplained ancient phenomenon to the intervention of aliens. But that is not what we are doing with the gospels. I have not argued that we have to believe that the gospels were dropped from heaven by God (like the Koran) and we must simply accept them on faith. Instead, I have put these documents under the most rigorous tests imaginable and they have passed with flying colors. To that the skeptic will intone (with monotonous regularity), “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Carl Sagan). The problem with this argument is that they don’t define what constitutes “extraordinary” and they don’t define what “evidence” they would accept. Atheist scientists make quite “extraordinary” claims all the time with no quantitative evidence, such as that life spontaneously emerged from inanimate matter and consciousness from unconscious forces. Reality is not nearly as settled as armchair scientists would like to believe. The discoveries of quantum physics (see, e.g., the concept of quantum superposition) demonstrate the extent to which the physical world is less a solid “fact” than a set of probabilities. Indeed, it increasingly appears that modern science is coming to the conclusion that physical matter only exists if there is a conscious observer. What sort of “extraordinary evidence” exists in such a universe?

Really, the argument against miracles hasn’t moved on much from the one formulated by eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). His argument against miracles is four-fold: (1) No alleged miracle has ever been supported by sufficient testimony that might not be mistaken; (2) People crave the miraculous, so they are less discerning in evaluating its genuineness; (3) Miracle reports tend to be from barbarous, uncivilized parts of the world; and (4) Miracle stories occur in all religions in support of contradictory theological claims and thus cancel each other out.

Well, (1) is merely an assertion. Hume essentially argues in a circle saying that miracles don’t exist and thus all stories of miracles are lies which proves that miracles don’t exist. If you dismiss all evidence against your theory, your theory is, of course, unassailable! Number (2) simply means that we must be careful in determining whether a miracle has actually occurred. That is why we have put the gospels through stringent tests that would doom other works of ancient literature to the dustbin. (3) is just racist, Eurocentric nonsense. Modern academics aren’t as explicit about this, but much of the literature denying miracles does come off as white Western academics simply dismissing reports from other cultures. And (4) is a superficial generalization. No religion other than Hinduism and Judaism contains as many miracles as Christianity, and Hinduism does not depend on the miraculous for its claims of legitimacy. Furthermore, just because a Christian believes in some miracles does not require that we credulously accept all miracle stories (even all Christian miracle stories) as true. Each miracle claim must be examined and rise or fall on its own merits. There is no reason to simply dismiss all supernatural claims out of hand.

Aside #2: The Demonic

One particular kind of miracle that causes incredulity and doubt are stories of Jesus casting out demons. To many modern people, belief in demons was just an explanation for mental illness or grand mal seizures by people who simply didn’t have the vocabulary or the scientific knowledge to describe these phenomena. In some cases, that might have been true. But this would be a much more convincing argument if there were not numerous recorded cases of exorcisms in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries observed by respected sociologists like M. Scott Peck, psychologists like Richard Gallagher, and numerous modern Catholic priests like Gabriele Amorth, often with recorded evidence (see sources below). Those observed to be oppressed by the demonic often exhibit supernatural strength, speak with inexplicably different voices, and show violent reactions to crosses, holy water, and the name of Jesus. After being delivered, such people demonstrate full health and can pass a battery of psychological and medical evaluations that they had not been able to before. Official Catholic exorcists, and any responsible person involved in deliverance ministry, will carefully determine first whether a person is experiencing physical or psychological illness before proceeding with an exorcism or deliverance. You can, of course, write this off as faith-based nonsense, but you will be making an unsupported claim just as much (if not more) than the person of faith. Belief in angels and demons is not irrational in a universe created by a transcendent God, which we have already established is at least possible. It is the height of arrogance to think that modern, Western scientists have entirely explained reality and that only explanations that line up with that philosophy are acceptable. That isn’t science — it’s scientism, just as much a religion as Christianity. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet I.5.187-8).

Sherlock Holmes and Ockham’s Razor

In his story The Sign of Four (1890), Arthur Conan Doyle has his famous detective Sherlock Holmes explain a fundamental fact about logical deduction to the ever-clueless Dr. John Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” To the skeptic, miracles are impossible, so the increasingly-improbable theories they offer regarding the gospels must be regarded as truth. Even though they have every appearance of being reliable eyewitness documents, we are not allowed to accept impossibilities, so there must be another explanation. Of course, that can be turned on its head. If miracles are possible, than the truthfulness of the gospel accounts is the most probable explanation for all the data. Another logical principle was articulated by medieval philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1347) in his famous “razor”, which is usually formulated as “don’t multiply entities beyond necessity” or, in layman’s terms, “the simplest answer is usually the correct one”. If we discount miracles, the simplest answers around Jesus turn out to be convoluted in the extreme, involving forgery, conspiracy, mass hysteria, or some combination thereof. If miracles are allowed as evidence, Ockham’s razor is easily applied. The simplest explanation for the seeming-reliability of the gospel accounts is that they are actually telling the truth. Any other explanation for both the how and why of the disciples and others formulating elaborate lies is too complicated and conspiratorial to pass historical muster. The battle is not between competing facts, but between what the data presents and what a naturalistic worldview allows. If we are willing to discard the latter, the evidence for the gospels makes perfect sense and allows for a cohesive historical worldview.

Conclusion

Nothing I will write here can convince you to believe in God or miracles if you really don’t want to. Believe it or not, the purpose of this whole project has not been Christian apologetics. I honestly did go into this wishing to discover what a historian could find out about the historical Jesus using the historical method. But it turns out that the presuppositions that you enter an investigation with carry a lot of weight when it comes to what conclusions you will accept. That said, if your only proof against miracles is “I’ve never seen one”, then maybe you need to work on a better argument. Ask yourself an honest question: what proof could God offer to you that you would accept and not try to explain away? Humans can explain almost anything to themselves. As Jesus said of unbelievers in his day, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:30). So I will end my historical investigation with that very question: Did Jesus rise from the dead or not? Look for part 1 on Tuesday.

Sources:

Thanks to Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019) for all the data about religious belief found in the “isn’t religion dying out?” section. As for the rest of this section, I will point you to resources regarding some of the topics covered.

Apologetics and the Existence of God:

Aquinas, Thomas Summa Theologica (many editions; see esp. the first part, question two, article three)

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Rev. Ed. (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), and The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Eugene [OR]: Wipf & Stock, 2000).

Dembski, William. Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language (Eugene [OR]: Harvest House Publishers, 2008).

Groothius, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011)

Plantinga, Alvin. Knowledge and Christian Belief. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015)

Miracles:

Geivett, R. Douglas and Gary R. Habermas, eds. In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997)

Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts 2 volumes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011)

Lewis, C.S. Miracles (originally published 1947, rev. ed. New York: HarperOne, 2015)

The Demonic

Amorth, Fr. Gabriele. An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels Translated by Charlotte J. Fasi (Manchester [NH]: Sophia Institute Press, 2016)

Gallagher, Richard. Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal (New York: HarperOne, 2020)

Peck, M. Scott. Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession (New York: Free Press, 2005)

Twelftree, Graham. Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus (Eugene [OR]: Wipf & Stock, 2010)

Science and Faith

Barr, Stephen M. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2003)

Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Hutchinson, Ian. Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science (Downers Grove, IVP, 2018)

Polkinghorne, John. Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion Rev. Ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005)

Have the Original Words of the Gospels Been Lost to History?

Everything I have written to this point assumes one thing: that the texts we are reading are accurate copies of the original sources. Until the last couple of decades, “textual criticism”, as this sort of study is called, was among the most dull and uncontroversial areas in all of New Testament studies. Even skeptical or revisionist scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan accepted that the gospels were basically preserved intact. Their project was to reinterpret those works to show that Jesus was being portrayed as less than God. But then came the publication of Bart Ehrman’s bestseller Misquoting Jesus in 2006. Suddenly, everybody was a textual critic and the very foundation of Biblical study seemed unsteady. So let’s look today at whether we can be confident in the textual transmission of our primary sources, the gospels. For if we cannot count on these texts to show us the historical Jesus, we will have to declare nearly absolute ignorance about him.

Translating Jesus’ Words and the Test of Genius

The first problem that you might imagine is that the gospels were written in Greek, while Jesus taught in Aramaic. How do we know that he was properly translated? Well, first off, there is a good possibility that at least some of Jesus’ teaching was in Greek. Textual scholars have noted the evidence of Greek wordplay in, for example, the Beatitudes, indicating that the Sermon on the Mount might have been delivered in Greek. That Jesus would know at least some Greek should not surprise us. Nazareth, his hometown, was located only four miles south of Sepphoris, a major Greek/Roman capitol in the region, and Jesus would have been familiar with Greek currency. Think about it: how did Jesus talk to Pilate? He almost certainly didn’t know Latin and Pilate would probably not have known Aramaic. They probably spoke Greek to each other. In any case, translating between Greek, Latin, and Aramaic was an everyday occurrence in first-century Palestine. Remember that Pilate had the sign on Jesus’ cross written in those three languages (John 19:20). There is, in short, no good reason to assume mistranslation.

We can also have confidence that the gospels are accurately preserved because they pass what is called the “criterion of embarrassment”. The disciples are frequently made to look like dunces who cannot understand even the basic teachings of Jesus (e.g. Luke 18:34). Peter, a major leader in the early Church, is portrayed as having denied Jesus three times on the eve of Christ’s death. Jesus is portrayed as being mocked and ridiculed during his trial and torture. And so forth. These are not stories that a later movement, trying to win over converts, would invent. Furthermore, the gospels include some sayings that are difficult to swallow, even for us today. Here is just a sampling:

  • But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:22)
  • If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matt. 5:29)
  • If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
  • Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:53)

Why would the Church make such difficult teachings up? Lastly, if later disciples were inventing Jesus’ teachings, why did they not have him address the issues plaguing the early Church? The earliest Church had major debates about circumcision for converts (Acts 15) and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14) and the nature of the resurrected body (1 Cor. 15). It sure would have been handy to have Jesus’ exact words on these topics. But they did not feel free to make up teachings out of whole cloth.

One last test is what I would call the “criterion of genius”. Simply put, Jesus’ teachings bear the mark of a real philosophical and spiritual genius. This is particularly evident in the parables, a form of teaching that was not common in either the Old Testament or later Christian works. If Jesus was not the one to come up with this form, we have to assume that all three synoptic authors independently came up with the idea of parables and produced brilliant examples of them. Stories like the good Samaritan, the sower, and the prodigal son have stood the test of time because they are profound explications of spiritual truths. Which is more likely: that multiple later authors were all separately geniuses or that Jesus was the source of all these stories? One final point: in all four gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. This title, derived from a prophecy in Daniel 7, was rarely used in the early Church to refer to Jesus and, indeed, has caused confusion to this day about Christ’s divine nature (despite being based on a messianic prophecy). This provides yet more evidence that we have Jesus’ authentic words. To quote scholar Peter J. Williams, “we have greater knowledge of what Jesus said than of sayings from any other ancient person who did not write a book” (CWTTG?, p. 97).

Misquoting Jesus

Let’s move on to the skeptical case for believing that the gospels are hopelessly corrupted. Bart Ehrman’s argument in Misquoting Jesus goes roughly as follows: (1) “Not only do we not have the originals [of the gospels], we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later — much later” (p.10). (2) There are countless differences in wording between the various manuscripts. Ehrman estimates anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 textual variants between the different manuscripts. (3) The major changes in the text were made by orthodox scribes who wished to push a particular view of Jesus. In short, we cannot ever know what the original text said because it has been hopelessly corrupted by later scholars who were constantly changing the text to fit their needs. This is the “telephone game” all over again.

How the Gospels Were Copied

Let’s address each of these points in turn. First off, the idea that we only have third or fourth-generation copies of the original texts is pure conjecture. As we have seen, we have papyri from as early as the 2nd century. But let’s move on to the real question: how did we get the copies we have? The evidence of the handwriting in the copies from the 2nd through the 4th centuries shows that they were the work of professional scribes, not the slapdash scribblings of amateurs. Secondly, do you think that once a scribe copied an original text, the original was simply thrown out? No, instead we have evidence that original copies of manuscripts could last for a century or more (150 to 200 years on average). For example, in his book Prescription against Heretics (ch. 36), written around the year 200, Tertullian tells heretics to go to the “apostolic churches” to read the “authentic writings” of the apostles. This almost certainly means that the original letters of Paul were kept in the churches to which they were sent some 150 years after they were written. Even if you disagree with this analysis, Tertullian’s admonition certainly indicates a desire for authentic copies of the original writings and not haphazard copying by amateurs. And remember that the first copies of the originals would themselves be in existence for a century to reference. We have evidence of all this in two of our oldest manuscripts, Papyrus 75 (P75) and Codex Vaticanus (B), which agree with each other to a remarkable extent. P75 (c. AD 200-225) is about 100 years older than B (c. AD 300-325), but it is not an ancestor of B, as B was copied from an earlier (lost) source that it shares with P75 (see Bock and Wallace, p. 47). In other words, they both reflect a reading of the text that dates from at least the early second century. The idea that all we have are “copies of the copies of the copies of the originals” just doesn’t line up with the actual textual evidence.

A Mountain of Manuscripts

One thing that Misquoting Jesus does not give its readers is context. How does the New Testament (NT) documentary record compare to other ancient texts? We have approximately 5800 Greek NT manuscripts, with new discoveries being made on an almost-annual basis. These texts come from all over the Mediterranean from Egypt and Turkey to Greece and Rome. In terms of the number of manuscripts, the next closest ancient documents are The Iliad with about 1700 copies and Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars with about 200. The average number of texts we have for a classical historian (e.g. Livy, Tacitus, Herodotus, Thucydides) is about 25 or 30. Additionally, we have over 10,000 Latin biblical manuscripts, thousands more in other classical languages, and over a million quotes in the works of the early Church fathers (Bruce Metzger says that we could reconstruct almost the entire NT just from the works of the Church fathers). We have almost 1000 times as many manuscripts of the NT as we do of any other classical work. Moreover, as we have already seen in previous posts, the texts we have of the NT are usually far older than ones for comparable ancient works. We have 104 NT manuscripts dated before AD 400 and forty-five of those contain the gospels. By comparison, the earliest copies we have of most Greek or Latin authors is 500 years or more after composition. These copies of pagan works are deemed reliable because medieval Christian scribes saved them from extinction. How much more should we believe that such scribes would faithfully copy what they believed to be the Word of God? In any case, having this many texts from this many regions should make it easy to trace any accidental or intentional corruption of the text.

The Nature of the Textual Variants

This mountain of manuscripts gives some context to the eye-popping number of 400,000 textual variants. We have so many variants largely because we have so many manuscripts. We’re dealing with 2.6 million pages of text, and thus we would encounter a variant once every 6.5 pages. To be fair, that seems like an awful lot. So what do we mean by a textual variant? In Ehrman’s own words: “Far and away, most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple — slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another” (Misquoting Jesus, p. 55). Some 75% of all textual variants fall in this category. Textual criticism will easily resolve such issues, and they can usually be cleared up by comparing them to another manuscript or simply using common sense. Another 15% of variants involve synonyms that are usually untranslatable. This includes whether or not the definite article appears before a person’s name and the transposition of words (because, in Greek, word order is more about emphasis than meaning). An example of this sort of variant would be in John 4:1 where some manuscripts say “Jesus” while others call him “the Lord”. The meaning has not changed either way. Another 9% or so of variants only occur in later manuscripts and are easily resolved by textual criticism and by cross-referencing with earlier documents. This is called a “meaningful but not viable” variant. In other words, while meaning has been changed, these particular variants have not been used in our standard Greek New Testaments and are (at most) put in the footnotes of modern English translations. This leaves us with less than 1% of textual variants that are both meaningful and viable. “Meaningful” in this context does not imply something of theological significance. Rather, it almost always refers to a minor alteration to the meaning of a particular sentence or phrase. Indeed, only about 40 lines of the NT remain unresolved by textual criticism, leaving us with 99.5% accuracy in our manuscripts. Let me be clear up front before we continue: these textual variants neither change nor challenge any core doctrine or fundamental belief of Christianity. More importantly for our purposes, they also do not alter the view of the historical Jesus provided by the gospels.

Mark 16, John 8, and Other Questionable Verses

Let’s look at a few of the most prominent verses in the gospels affected by these textual variances. By far, the largest textual problems surround Mark 16:9-20 (the “longer ending” of Mark) and John 7:53-8:11 (the story of the woman caught in adultery). Our oldest manuscripts do not contain either of these passages and all modern English translations (that I know of) bracket off these passages and include a notation mentioning this. The longer ending of Mark was likely added by later scribes who saw the abrupt end at verse 8 and believed, perhaps correctly, that the original ending had been lost. Verses 9 through 20 read a bit like someone trying to come up with a plausible ending by mashing up bits of the other gospels, along with some parts of Paul’s life (the verse saying “they will pick up serpents with their hands” may be a reference to Paul surviving a snakebite in Acts 28:1-6). As for the story of the woman caught in adultery, this beloved tale was almost certainly not penned by John, but it would fit in well with Luke, and some scribes tried to find a place for it there. Even skeptical scholars admit that this story feels genuine, and it seems to show Jesus’ genius in being able to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable all at once. My gut tells me the story is true, but gut feelings are not evidence. As it stands, we must simply mark it as disputed and admit that it does not belong in John.

Needless to say, Ehrman starts off his book with these two blockbuster examples of textual variants, leading the reader to wonder how many other passages of similar length are in question. The answer is: none. All of the other variants are one or two verses at most, and the majority amount to a single word. Let’s look at three examples from the gospels: Mark 1:41, concerning the healing of a leper, says in the ESV “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” But the NIV, using different manuscripts, translates the passage: “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Is Jesus compassionate or indignant? Well, it seems he was both. The leper doubted Jesus’ willingness to heal him and Jesus was angry at this doubt (or perhaps he was angry at having to do a public healing, which forced him to retreat into the countryside — see Mark 1:45). So he showed compassion while being angry. Ehrman acts like an angry Jesus is somehow troublesome to Christians when other parts of that same gospel show Jesus being angry (Mark 3:5; 10:14). Matthew 24:36 says “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” However, some manuscripts do not have the phrase “nor the Son”. This would seem to change the theological significance of the passage. But in the undisputed parallel passage in Mark (13:32), Jesus does say that “the Son” is ignorant of the day or hour. Even if that phrase is missing in Matthew, the pointed use of the phrase “the Father only” seems to indicate a reading where only the Father is in the know, even if the Son is not explicitly mentioned. John 1:18 says “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (ESV) Some manuscripts say “the only Son” instead of “the only God”. Ehrman tries to argue that if the alternate “Son” reading is used, then it can be argued that John is differentiating the Son from God the Father. But many modern translations see “Son” and “God” as rightly interchangeable, and add helping phrases to clarify (see, e.g., NIV, NET, NRSV). Either way, I can’t for the life of me see what sort of doctrinal dispute this textual variant is supposed to cause.

Looking for “Orthodox Corruptions”

Let’s address Ehrman’s final assertion: that orthodox scribes added material to the gospels to make Jesus appear more divine or to buttress orthodox theology. Let me answer that question by introducing you to Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the most brilliant scholar of the Northern Renaissance. In 1516, he produced the first printed Greek New Testament working from two 12th century copies. Surely any corruptions to the text would appear in Erasmus’s work. After all, it was only in the 20th century that we discovered the vast majority of early papyri as well as the great uncial codices. Yet there are only eleven verses that differ meaningfully from Erasmus to modern Greek New Testaments. Erasmus was aware of issues with three of those verses and was also aware of the issues surrounding Mark 16 and John 8. Far from showing orthodox scribes adding material, if anything our modern Greek gospels are overly cautious, excluding passages that might be genuine. According to Peter J. Williams (chair of the International Greek New Testament Project), there are four verses in modern Greek gospels that might be later additions. They are as follows:

  • When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ (Matt. 16:2b-3)
  • And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:43-44)
  • And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Luke 23:34)

Of these, it’s hard to imagine anyone inventing Jesus forgiving his persecutors, and the bit about the red sky may have been omitted by early Egyptian scribes who did not associate red morning skies with storms. In any case, we could delete these verses and not lose any Christian doctrines, and these verses account for 0.1% of the New Testament.

Those arguing for textual additions run into the same problem as those asserting forged gospel authorship, namely that the conspiracy to do so would have to cover the whole Roman empire. There were multiple textual traditions that scholars can trace and any change to a core doctrine would have to be added to all these separate manuscripts. Add to that the fact that the gospels were translated into Coptic, Latin, and Syriac in the 3rd century; Armenian and Gothic in the 5th century; and Anglo-Saxon, Arabic, Georgian, & Old Church Slavonic by the end of the 10th century. Thus, any changes would had to have been translated into these languages as well. Yet what we see in the translations, just as in the Greek manuscripts, is remarkable uniformity given the different textual traditions. In much the same way as the gospels are both similar and different enough to be genuine, the manuscripts are similar enough to inspire confidence, while containing enough variance to give the lie to any accusation of a cover-up. There simply wasn’t any authority in the second- or third-century Church powerful enough to coerce a single manuscript tradition, as evidenced by those 400,000 variants. But, as my last post showed, there was a grassroots consensus about which sources were genuinely apostolic. Skeptics wish to assert that the gospels were both the result of a vast conspiracy and gross incompetence. It can’t be both. The historical evidence indicates that it was neither.

Conclusion

The canonical gospels are the best documented and most scrutinized texts from antiquity. If any other work from the ancient world were subjected the standard that the gospels are held to, we would have to throw them all out. We would therefore have to discard the last five hundred years of scholarship about the ancient world. But that would be absurd. The breadth and antiquity of the New Testament manuscripts is unrivaled in world history. The idea that we cannot reconstruct the original signatures of the gospels is to apply a level of skepticism that would make historical inquiry impossible. Furthermore, the assertion that the gospels were changed by later scribes is belied by the consistency of the manuscript evidence across time, space, and language. To top it off, we can have faith that we have the words of Jesus simply because it is easier to assume that we are reading the words of a singular genius than the work of multiple genius forgers who happen to use the same forms and come to the same conclusions. If they are the work of later forgers, they sure went out of their way to not address the issues of their day, to make the disciples look as bad as possible, and to make Jesus say the most uncomfortable things imaginable. Or maybe, just maybe, they were telling the truth and faithfully reporting and copying down the words and actions of a man they believed to be the Son of God. I’ll give Bart Ehrman the last word:

The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. [Bruce] Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Misquoting Jesus, p. 252

Sources

Primary Sources:

If you are interested in investigating the earliest New Testament papyri, I’ve put a chart below of just the papyri for the gospels from the second and early third centuries (there are many more from the late third century). There are, of course, other papyri for the remaining New Testament books and the codices from the fourth and fifth centuries. By the way, papyri are numbered by the order in which they were discovered/cataloged. Two online resources for manuscript research are The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and The New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room

Approximate DatesPapyri (Gospel[s])
AD 125-150P52 (John)
AD 150-175P90 (John); P104 (Matthew)
AD 175-200P4 (Luke); P64 & P67 (Matthew); P66 (John); P77 (Matthew); P103 (Matthew)
AD 200-225P5 (John); P75 (Luke & John); P109 (John); P137 (Mark)
AD 225-250P45 (all four); P108 (John)

Secondary Sources consulted:

The most helpful sources for this post were Bock and Wallace, Dethroning Jesus; Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament; and Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? See also Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? and Evans, Fabricating Jesus.

Secondary Sources for further research:

Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006)

Metzger, Bruce and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)

Porter, Stanley E. How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

Who Chose the Gospels?

The Council of Nicaea “Conspiracy”

Please join me in putting on a tin-foil hat as we explore the story of how the New Testament canon was decided upon: The emperor Constantine, looking to stomp out dissent, called the Council of Nicaea in order to solidify the power of the official state religion, Christianity. So bishops were called from all over the empire and came together to argue over many equally legitimate versions of the faith. This council basically created the idea of Christ’s divinity out of whole cloth and used its power to violently suppress any competing versions of the faith. A bishop named Athanasius decided on the final form of the New Testament, and, with the support of the Roman state, he and other like minded bishops persecuted and exiled anyone who would dare to question the new official canon. Inexplicably, the Council had chosen four gospels out of the many competing for prominence, most likely because they came the closest to supporting this novel idea of Christ’s divinity. Thus the politically-powerful orthodox were able to suppress minority viewpoints and pretend that their version of Christianity had been the only true faith passed down from the apostles. The winners wrote the history of Jesus.

This story is a sort of amalgamation of the work of William Peterson, Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and some online skeptics. The problem with this story is that literally every detail is incorrect. To start with, Christianity was not the official religion of the Roman Empire when the Council of Nicaea was called in AD 325 (it had just been made legal by the Edict of Milan in AD 313 — Christianity would not become the sole legal religion of the empire until AD 380 under Emperor Theodosius I). The Council was called primarily to deal with the new teaching of Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who had begun teaching that Jesus was not divine. As we have already seen, Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus dates back to the first century and it was the opposing idea of Arianism that represented a novel teaching. In any case, Constantine was worried about any force that might cause disunity in the empire and called 1800 bishops to Nicaea, a city on the outskirts of Constantinople, so that the Church could come to some sort of compromise on the matter (only about 300 bishops were able to make it). Importantly, no Gnostics were involved with any of this because, as we have seen, the Church had already rejected these other gospels as forgeries and heresies. The Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with setting the biblical canon. In the end, everyone at the council except for Arius and two bishops signed the Nicene Creed, which declared the divinity of Christ. This shows how universal the beliefs of the Church truly were. Constantine, far from supporting the council or forcing his views upon it, actually disliked that one side had won out. In fact, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian priest, and after his death it was Arianism that looked like it would win out. So the political power, far from being with the orthodox, was actually against them. This is where Athanasius comes to the fore. Rather than offering something new, Athanasius was simply trying to uphold the traditional and apostolic faith of the Church against new teachings and the Roman emperors who supported it. Far from being powerful, Athanasius stood almost alone (Athanasius contra mundum) and was exiled five times due to his beliefs. But he was popular with common Christians and always returned. In other words, the actual story is the opposite of the one Peterson, Pagels, Ehrman, et. al. tell. The orthodox view was popular, but politically powerless, while the heretical view was a politically powerful minority that was attempting to stamp out dissent. Eventually, infighting proved to be the downfall of Arianism and the Council of Constantinople (AD 381) reaffirmed Christ’s human and divine nature, giving us the Nicene Creed that the Church uses to this day. The triumph of the orthodox view was not a conspiracy; it was the defeat of a conspiracy.

Athanasius and the Standards of Canonization

Of course, none of this tells us where the New Testament canon did come from. There is one thing that the tinfoil-hat story above gets right: the first list of the 27 books of the final New Testament were written down by Athanasius in his 39th Festal Letter in AD 367 (the Festal letter was an annual tradition of the bishops of Alexandria, written after Epiphany to set the date of Easter, hence “Festal”). Pope Damasus I confirmed this list in 382 and it was further reaffirmed by councils in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). The reason for setting a final canon was the same reason for the calling of the general Church councils, namely to stop the spread of new and heretical ideas that bore little resemblance to the tradition of the apostles. Athanasius specifically mentions the explosion of apocryphal gospels in the 3rd and 4th centuries as a reason to be clear about what was considered Scripture and what wasn’t. The standards for canonization that were used looks very similar to our standards for historical reliability. There were three basic tests — (1) Apostolic Authority: Were the books written by the apostles or those whom the apostles directly taught? This is similar to our questions about dating and eyewitness testimony. (2) General Acceptance: Did the majority of the Church treat these books as Holy Scripture? This aligns roughly with our standard of “external evidence”. Far from wishing to impose a list of unpopular books, the canon represented a wide consensus about which books were deemed authentic. (3) Consistency: Does the book in question align with the rest of the New Testament? The apocryphal books were rejected mostly because they painted a picture of Jesus wildly at odds with the earliest, apostolic documents. The desire to have the New Testament speak with one voice was not an attempt to suppress minority viewpoints so much as an effort to stick as closely to the facts of Jesus’ life and the nature of his teaching as possible. Again, the idea of a conspiracy to silence “the real truth” does not align with the historical reality of a far-flung Church with little political power. The process of canonization worked not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

How Early Were the Four Gospels Set Apart?

However, the question remains: when did the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John get set apart as the only legitimate gospels? If they were only chosen in the fourth century, there might be good reason to believe that other early gospels had already been lost and that the canon was set not by conspiracy, but by ignorance. However, we have a much earlier source for the four-fold gospel. Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-202) in his work responding to heretics wrote the following in about the year 180:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.

Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch. 11.8

Here Irenaeus is defending a four-fold gospel canon against heretics who would wish to add to their number. This indicates that he is writing on behalf of a Church that has already settled on this canon. As we saw in the post on authorship, Irenaeus defends these four books on the grounds of apostolic authority, which is why (reasons regarding winds and cherubim aside) he regards the four gospels as normative. Irenaeus wrote this treatise, liberally quoting from the canonical gospels, in the full expectation that his readers would agree with his assessment. Further evidence of this being the norm can be seen in Papyrus 45, dated to around 250 and found on the opposite side of the Mediterranean in Egypt. Here we see a papyrus codex containing fragments of the four gospels and Acts. It should be noted that no collection of papyrus contains a grouping including both canonical and non-canonical gospels.

However, some will still claim that Irenaeus, with his bullying style and hatred of diversity, simply dismissed perfectly-legitimate gospels in order to create a four-fold canon that fit with his ideology. If that is the case, he sure managed to bully people a long way off, not only evidenced by the papyri, but also 2nd and 3rd century writers from Rome (Hippolytus) to Carthage (Tertullian and Cyprian) to Alexandria (Origen and Dionysius) to Caesarea (Marinus). All treat the four gospel canon as normative. While some of these writers might have read Irenaeus, they were still writing to vastly different faith communities and yet all came to the same conclusion. Keep in mind that the Church was still under persecution at this time and had no centralized authority that could intimidate rogue bishops or instigate massive book-burnings. Yet even when it appears that a respected Church father is supporting the apocryphal gospels (going rogue, if you will), it often turns out that they just end up reaffirming the four-fold canon. For example, Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) sometimes quoted from apocryphal works, including the Gospel of the Egyptians eight times and others three or four times. This seems significant until you realize he quoted Matthew 757 times, Mark 182 times, Luke 402 times, and John 331 times. It’s clear which group of texts he really trusted (and, since he lived at the same time as Irenaeus, it’s very unlikely he simply followed the other bishop’s lead). You will search in vain if you attempt to find any other list of canonical gospels in the early Church other than the four we have now.

Two final data points: The Muratorian Fragment, written in Rome and dated to about 180 (the same year as Irenaeus’s Against Heresies), is perhaps the earliest extant canonical list. Although it is missing pages, it numbers the gospels at four and lists the third and fourth gospels as Luke and John. Lastly, we have Tatian’s Diatessaron written in Syria around the year 173. This work is an attempt to harmonize the four gospels into a single work. What’s significant about this is that it indicates how central and accepted these four works already were in the late second century. Other similar “harmonies” were also attempted in the third and fourth centuries and all of them included the four canonical gospels and no others. Again, it is striking how we never see alternate gospels included with the canonical ones in the bound papyrus fragments of the early Church, no matter where in the Mediterranean or the Levant we search.

Other “Near-Miss” Scriptures

Another important thing to keep in mind is that just because a book did not make the canon does not mean that it was deemed heretical. Athanasius concludes his 39th Festal Letter thusly:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.

Athanasius, Letter 39, section 7

We see here a list of non-canonical books that are still worthy to be read. This includes five Old Testament apocrypha (although Esther would eventually make the canon) along with the Teaching of the Apostles, also known as the Didache (AD 50-73), and the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 90-155). Along with the First Epistle of Clement (c. 96), these final two books were works that some treated as Scripture, but did not make the canon. The primary reason for this they are of uncertain authorship or, in the case of Clement, too parochial to be truly considered Scripture. Again, this is not because of any theological issues with the works (unlike the apocryphal writings, which Athanasius condemns), but because of the high standards of canonization. If works written that early were rejected, is it likely that the Church would accept 2nd century forgeries as the most important Scriptures of the faith? It rather points to the fact the the early Church was confident of the accuracy and apostolic authorship of the four canonical gospels as well as the dubious nature of their apocryphal competitors.

Conclusion: The Gospels Chose Themselves

The question that titles this post is asked the wrong way round. In the words of the pre-eminent scholar on this topic, the late Bruce Metzger, “neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church” (qtd. in Hill, WCTG?, p.229). In C.E. Hill’s memorable analogy, asking “who chose the gospels?” is a bit like asking “why did you choose your parents?” The reason it is so difficult to determine when the canon was settled (and why there are four gospels instead of just one) is that there was no single authority making the choice. The canon developed as a natural process within the Church, refined and focused by bishops and councils to be sure, but not imposed by them. The criteria that I listed above for canonization were never formalized, but emerged naturally as Christians attempted to determine the truth about Jesus. Imputing some vast conspiracy on this process strains credulity and does not line up with the evidence of a canon that had already settled into place less than a century after the gospels were written (and perhaps much earlier). It was the “conspiracy” of Arianism and the proliferation of Gnostic and apocryphal texts that finally forced the Church to codify the New Testament. Even if they had never done so, the self-attesting quality and historical reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would still recommend themselves to historians as the best sources about the life and teachings of Jesus.

Sources

Primary Sources:

For those of you wishing to follow the trail of early Church fathers singling out the four gospels, here are the sources for those mentioned in the paragraph about Irenaeus the “bully”:

  • Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel, 1.17; On Christ and Antichrist 58
  • Tertullian of Carthage: Against Marcion 4.2.2
  • Cyprian of Carthage: Epistle 73.10.3
  • Origen of Alexandria: Commentaries on John 1.6; Homilies on Luke; Commentary on Matthew
  • Dionysius of Alexandria: Letter to Basilides
  • Marinus of Caesarea: Quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.15.4

Secondary Sources Consulted:

The best source on this topic, as the title suggests, is C.E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? See also Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament and Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? For excellent coverage of the Council of Nicaea and its aftermath, see Henry Chadwick’s indispensable The Early Church (Oxford: Penguin, 1993).

Secondary Sources for further research:

Gamble, Harry Y. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Eugene [OR]: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002)

Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013)

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF JESUS “THEY” DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT!

In 2003, a poorly-written airport novel entitled The Da Vinci Code took the world by storm, topping bestseller lists (it was second only to Harry Potter) and igniting worldwide controversy. The plot centered around a conspiracy that the Church has supposedly been suppressing for centuries: secretly-feminist alternate gospels that tell the “real” story about Jesus. While it was classified as fiction, its author, Dan Brown, heavily implied that he believed the basic claims in the novel and many around the world took it to be based upon scholarly research. While serious scholars of all stripes rolled their eyes and dutifully wrote articles debunking the novel’s most outrageous claims (such as that the children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the progenitors of the Merovingian dynasty), many people began to wonder if the Church had something to hide. This societal trend only intensified when, for the first time, an English translation of the recently-discovered Gospel of Judas was published in 2006. Soon, it seemed that every Easter brought another article in a major publication about the “lost gospels” of Christianity, secret and hidden words of Jesus that portrayed a very different figure than the one in the canonical gospels. By 2013, a group of scholars led by seminary professor Hal Taussig had published A New New Testament, which included ten new books interspersed with the traditional New Testament canon that (they said) gave a more fully-rounded and accurate picture of Jesus and the early Church. Clearly, this is more than just a cultural fad. As historians, we must investigate documents that give us an alternate picture of an important figure. So today I’d like to look at the other gospels purportedly written by eyewitnesses and to put them through the same tests as the canonical gospels. Only then will we know if there is truly a lost history of Jesus that should replace the one that the New Testament relates.

How Many Gospels Were Competing for Prominence?

The first thing I should establish is what we mean by “lost gospels”. They were “lost” only in the sense that we did not have manuscripts of them until 20th century archaeological discoveries unearthed them. These gospels were well-known in the early Church, as we shall see, and there have been enough manuscripts found to believe that some were in wide circulation. The Church was nowhere near powerful or centralized enough in the second century to suppress undesirable texts. Even so, I think most people have a false idea of how many gospels were actually circulating. The impression that scholars like Elaine Pagels give is that there were dozens or even hundreds of competing gospels, each with equal claims to legitimacy. In actuality, if you draw the line at AD 180 or so (a date after which it is unreasonable to assume accuracy), there are only about eight additional gospels to choose from. And, without getting too far into the weeds, only about four of those have enough manuscript evidence to lead scholars to believe that they were prominent enough to even possibly compete with the canonical gospels (those four are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). The idea that everybody and their brother was writing a gospel in the first and second centuries is just not true.

Nag Hammadi and Gnostic literature

In 1945, a farmer digging around an ancient graveyard near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi unearthed a sealed jar containing one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century. It contained thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices containing fifty-two Gnostic treatises written in the Coptic language. The manuscripts were compared with extant fragments found elsewhere in Egypt determined to be genuine. Thus many apocryphal (from the Greek apokryphon “secret teachings”) gospels and texts, long thought to be lost to history, could finally be studied (there are other apocryphal works not found at Nag Hammadi, but these are by far the most prominent). Gnosticism is a catch-all term for various religious movements of the second century, coming from the Greek word gnosis (“knowledge”). While these groups had a confusing amalgamation of beliefs, influenced by everything from Platonism to Zoroastrianism, a few basic tenets can be generalized. The central belief of Gnosticism is that matter is evil and the goal of life is to allow your soul to escape your body. There is a supreme Being or God (the Monad) out from which emanate lesser divine beings known as Aeons. The lowest of these Aeons birthed a Demiurge, a malevolent deity that created the physical world. This Demiurge is often associated with the God of the Hebrew Bible. These were mystery cults that placed a great emphasis on secret knowledge that the average person, bound by the evil of material existence, could not hope to understand. Achieving spiritual enlightenment involved initiation into this secret knowledge, severe asceticism, and a mystic union with the divine. Most of the prominent apocryphal gospels are Gnostic in origin, hence the name “Gnostic gospels” that is often associated with them. While I could try to quickly address each one, I’d rather pick a single example to give you a taste of what these gospels are like.

Case Study: The Gospel of Thomas

By far the most prominent and most popular of the Gnostic gospels is the Gospel of Thomas. Indeed, Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament considers only the Gospel of Thomas to be equal in stature to the synoptic gospels. At first glance, it is very different from the synoptic gospels, as it is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus without any accompanying stories or miracles. It begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” This emphasis on secrecy, of a special revelation hidden from the other disciples and the public, marks this immediately as a Gnostic text. Of all the apocryphal gospels, Thomas hews closest to the Jesus we see in the four canonical gospels. Some sayings are almost identical to what we see in the gospels, such as, “[Jesus] said to them, “[Heaven’s kingdom] is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.” (20:2). Other sayings start out familiar and then veer off into clearly Gnostic territory: “Blessed are the poor, for the realm of the sky is theirs” (54). However, many of the sayings are markedly different from the rest of New Testament. For example: “When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your faces and worship. That one is your Father.” (15). This shows how uncomfortable these Gnostic texts are with the idea of the Incarnation, because the material world is evil. We can also see the anti-Semitism of the Gnostics in verses like this: “His disciples said to him, “Is circumcision useful or not?” He said to them, “If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect.” (53) Circumcision is seen as not just abolished, but wrong from the outset. Jesus in Thomas even ventures close to pantheism — see, e.g., “”I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there” (77). Occasionally, Jesus starts to sound like an Eastern mystic dispensing cryptic koans, as in: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you” (70). By far the most memorable saying is the final one:

Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Gospel of Thomas, 114:1-2

So much for the Gnostic gospels being secretly feminist! Indeed, these scriptures generally regard women as being of the material world and therefore something to be transcended. Compare this verse to the apostle Paul’s statement that “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), which declares women the spiritual equal to men. In any case, I hope this brief summary gives you the general idea of what this gospel is about. In the memorable words of scholar Michael Bird, “the Jesus of The Gospel of Thomas is not a Jewish Messiah but more like a beatified beatnik dispensing amorphous aphorisms and even advocating salvation by androgyny.” (The Gospel of the Lord, p.296; qtd. in Blomberg, HRNT, p.574).

Putting the Apocryphal Gospels to the Test

Let’s run the apocryphal gospels through the same tests that we ran the canonical gospels though to see if they hold up to historical scrutiny:

Dating: Even if we limit our scope to the earliest gospels, all of them were written well after the death of eyewitnesses. The Gospels of Thomas and Peter are dated to around AD 140 or 150 (although scholar Craig Evans makes a compelling argument that Thomas should be dated no earlier than 180), while the Gospel of Judas is probably closer to the end of the second century. This is at least fifty years later than the final gospel and perhaps a full century later than the synoptic gospels. Of course, they could be based on an earlier oral tradition, but we have no evidence of any such tradition existing during the first century. The disciples’ informal control of the tradition would not allow such wildly divergent stories to develop within the Church, while their lack of societal power would allow those stories to gain traction in other parts of the empire. Also, earlier fragments of the Gospel of Thomas are significantly different from the Nag Hammadi manuscript (which is dated to the 4th century), indicating that important changes were made to the manuscript in (perhaps) the 3rd century. Given that there are far fewer manuscripts of the apocryphal gospels, it is difficult to date them with any certainty. However, scholars universally agree that they are later than the canonical gospels, and, in the case of Thomas, dependent upon them.

Authorship: No scholar accepts the attributed authorship of any of the apocryphal gospels for the simple reason that the listed authors would have been dead by the time the gospels were written. Again, they are possibly based upon an oral tradition going back to the apostolic period, but that is purely conjecture. Most scholars consider these works to be anonymous and/or the work of a group of authors. While this doesn’t mean that the sayings can’t be legitimately from Jesus, it does raise questions as to the provenance and accuracy of their source material. As for Thomas, it seems clear that it is a combination of direct quotation from the canonical gospels, later Gnostic additions, and a third group of sayings of unknown source.

Genre: Jesus in these gospels is more of a Greek philosopher or Eastern mystic than a Jewish rabbi. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to offer historical background about him or to keep even in the ballpark of the standards of Greco-Roman biography. There are no genealogies or explanatory prologues, and they are often far shorter than typical biographies. The lack of detail when put side-by-side with the canonical gospels is striking. It seems clear that the apocryphal gospels are more in the genre of philosophy than biography.

Accuracy: The real failing of the apocryphal gospels is in the details. Let’s go through each category. Geography: The Gospel of Thomas mentions Judea once, The Gospel of Judas mentions no locations, and the much-later Gospel of Philip only mentions Jerusalem (four times), Nazareth, and the Jordan River. None of them show any knowledge of roads and travel, or specific locations like gardens or the Temple. Nothing about these gospels shows a familiarity with first-century Palestine. Names: The Gospel of Thomas does a bit better here, mentioning Jesus, James the Just, Mary, Matthew, Salome, Simon Peter, and, of course, Thomas. Notice, however, the lack of disambiguation, meaning that (for example) in the final verse you have to use context clues to figure out that they’re talking about Mary Magdalene and not another Mary. Indeed, The Gospel of Mary doesn’t disambiguate its title, so that it is under some dispute which Mary it is attributed to (probably Mary Magdalene again). Meanwhile, The Gospel of Judas only has two names that are actually Palestinian: Judas and Jesus. It does have many other names from second-century mysticism like three angels named Nebro, Yaldabaoth, and Saklas. Indeed, one of the big “reveals” in that gospel is when Judas says, “I know who you are and where you’ve come from. You’ve come from the immortal realm of Barbelo, and I’m not worthy to utter the name of the one who’s sent you” (2:22-24). Barbelo is an aeon, one of the emanations of the untouchable Gnostic God. The chance that the actual Judas would have known that name is basically zero. “Jewishness”: The most striking thing about the apocryphal gospels is how little they quote or even seem to be aware of the Old Testament. If anything, they seem disdainful of the Jewish scriptures. That a Jewish rabbi like Jesus would just ignore or dismiss the Hebrew Bible is not plausible. The Gentile nature of these works speaks of how late they were authored and how far removed they are from the time and person of Jesus.

External Evidence: Far from being “secret” or “lost”, the apocryphal gospels we have today were known to the early Church and were universally rejected as later forgeries that used the names of the apostles to feign authenticity. Here’s Irenaeus (c.130-202) on The Gospel of Judas:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

Against Heresies 1.31.1

About The Gospel of Peter, we have the testimony of Serapion, bishop of Antioch (d. 211): “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us” (qtd. in Eusebius, Ecc. Hist., 6.12.3). And for The Gospel of Thomas, first we have Eusebius (c. 325):

We have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings. And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics. Wherefore they are not to be placed even among the rejected writings, but are all of them to be cast aside as absurd and impious.

Ecclesiastical History 3.25.6-7

In addition we have the testimony of Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386): “Then of the New Testament there are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichæans also wrote a Gospel according to Thomas, which being tinctured with the fragrance of the evangelic title corrupts the souls of the simple sort.” In short, the early Church could smell a rat. The standards for canonization as Holy Scripture (about which more in the next post) were very high, and one of the most important was apostolic authorship. The reason these gospels were rejected is aptly put by Eusebius: they were so out of character with the nature of apostolic teaching that they were clearly fiction both “absurd and impious”.

The Apocryphal Gospels and the “Eye Test”

In baseball scouting parlance, the “eye test” is when a scout actually goes to watch a ballplayer play the game. While statistical analysis and projections are all well and good, there is no substitute for watching the player actually step into the batter’s box or toe the pitching rubber. Something similar can be said for the apocryphal gospels. I can try to convince you that these are unreliable sources with facts and figures until I’m blue in the face. But the surest proof of their unfitness is to read them side-by-side with the gospels. If you do that, it becomes clear that these are at best the sacred scriptures of a completely different religion and at worst a sort of Jesus “fan fiction”. They were clearly not written by eyewitnesses and show every indication of being written in response to the canonical gospels, not as replacements of them. Moreover, they show us a Jesus who is barely human (such as when The Gospel of Peter tells us that the crucified Christ “felt no pain” [4:10]) and who frequently mocks the disciples with derisive laughter. The “infancy” narratives, like The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, give us Jesus as a sort of malevolent superhero who on the one hand makes clay pigeons and brings them to life (2:4), and on the other hand curses a child who messed up his miracle (3:2) and kills another kid who bumped his shoulder (4:1)! These capricious “miracles” are not in keeping with the rest of the New Testament miracles or even the Old Testament ones. The Jesus of the canonical gospels feels like a real person, with both deep insight and real human emotions. The Jesus of the Gnostic gospels feels like the product of wishful thinking. Perhaps this is why so much of the commentary about these apocryphal works refrains from actually quoting the documents. Once you actually read them, the mystique is lost.

Conclusion

The apocryphal gospels are a fascinating historical curiosity, a window into the turbulent spiritual world of the second century AD. But are they reliable historical documents that give us real insight into the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth? No. Even if something like The Gospel of Thomas contains real sayings of Jesus (and it might!), there is no way to separate fact from fiction at this late date. Barring the discovery of first-century manuscripts of these gospels, we must assume that they are later forgeries, written to prop up an alternate religion in the place of apostolic Christianity. At the risk of being uncharitable, I think the only reason that most skeptical scholars would advocate for these gospels is to sow confusion. If they can make you believe that the canonical gospels are on the same level as these clear forgeries, then they can convince you to not trust anything about Jesus. But we have seen in the previous posts how the canonical gospels hold up to even the harshest scrutiny, while the apocryphal gospels collapse at the most cursory examination. All that said, did the early Church suppress alternate viewpoints? Is the New Testament canon the result of a conspiracy to silence the subversive truth about Jesus? Why, indeed, should Christians (or anyone else) believe that the books of the New Testament are more reliable than any others? These questions will be addressed in the next post….

Sources

Primary Sources:

The apocryphal gospels can be found in numerous editions, including free online editions. There are also translations of ten prominent apocryphal works in the aforementioned A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts edited by Hal Taussig (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

Secondary Sources Consulted:

For the Christian perspective on these works, see Hill, C.E. Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), along with Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus; Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament; and Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Of the books published to react to the The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent mania for alternate “Jesuses”, the best and most scholarly are Darrell Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) and Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006)

Secondary Sources for further research:

On the Gnostic gospels in general, see Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, and Paul Foster, The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

On the Gospel of Thomas in particular, see Nicholas Perrin, Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012), and Mark Goodacre, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

Do the Gospels Confirm One Another? The Evidence of Undesigned Coincidences

In my last post, we put the gospels through the wringer, like a prosecutor questioning a witness for the defense to test for any cracks in the alibi. In fairness, we should give the defendants a chance to make their case. So in this post I’m going to highlight one of the most often overlooked aspects of the gospels: undesigned coincidences. Nineteenth-century Cambridge theology professor John James Blunt first crystallized this idea in an 1847 book, and it has since been expanded upon by the husband and wife scholarly team Timothy and Lydia McGrew. An undesigned coincidence happens when one gospel ties up a loose end left by another gospel or otherwise explains what that gospel left vague. The gospels have a tendency to overlap in unexpected ways that could not possibly have been planned, even by the most skilled of forgers. This is important because of two competing criteria historians have for trusting that historical documents about the same person or event have not been forged: (1) the documents are not identical (and therefore the result of one person copying another’s work), and (2) the documents are not so different as to make it appear that one or both of them are unreliable. The differences between the gospels we noted in the last post should dispel the first problem. I hope to deal with that second one today. As with my post on contradictions, the best way to handle this is to give examples.

Undesigned Coincidence #1: Mary and Martha

In Luke 10:38-42, we get the famous story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha of Bethany. Martha, the practical sister, is trying to get the house in tip-top shape for Jesus and becomes annoyed at her sister Mary, the emotional sister, who is just sitting at Jesus’ feet. Over in John’s gospel (ch. 11), Jesus comes to see the same sisters because their brother Lazarus has died. John says that Martha immediately ran to Jesus, while Mary “remained seated in the house” (John 11:20). Martha welcomes Jesus, while Mary sits. Martha tells Mary that Jesus is calling to her, and only then does she rise. But instead of going to weep at the tomb, as the others expect (11:31), she “fell at [Jesus’] feet” (11:32) in a striking parallel to Luke. Mary is recorded as weeping, while Martha is not. Once they get to the tomb, Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away, and the ever-practical Martha points out that “by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (11:39). In short, these two sisters show consistent character traits in two completely different stories that do not refer to each other. The most simple explanation for this is that both authors are writing about real women.

Undesigned Coincidence #2: The Sons of Thunder

Mark 3:17 tells us that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed “the sons of thunder” by Jesus. Mark never explains why Jesus would give these two such a memorable sobriquet. However, Luke’s gospel tells the story of Jesus being rejected by the Samaritans because he is a Jew on his way to Jerusalem. Luke continues: “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them” (9:54-55). So just as Luke 9 helps illuminate characters from John’s gospel, so does Luke 10 help explain a reference in Mark’s gospel. It’s highly unlikely that Luke would have invented two different stories to explain the motivations of characters in two other gospels, especially since John was almost certainly written later. The simpler explanation is, once again, that both are talking about real incidents with real people.

Undesigned Coincidence #3: Healing at Peter’s House

Matthew 8 tells the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. After his miraculous healing, it says “that evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick” (8:16). But why did they wait until evening? Mark provides the answer when he tells us, in relating the same story, that it happened on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21), meaning that people would have to wait until evening when the Sabbath ended. You might remember that public healing on the Sabbath got Jesus in big trouble with the Jewish authorities later on (see, e.g., Luke 14:1-6). Mark doesn’t include this detail to “explain” Matthew’s story, or even his own, but it fits with the culture of the region. It’s the kind of coincidental detail that true stories have and fabrications often leave out.

Undesigned Coincidence #4: The Transfiguration

Upon coming down from the mount of transfiguration, Luke’s gospel tells us that the disciples “kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (Luke 9:36). But why? Wouldn’t you tell somebody if the rabbi you were following starting glowing white and had a conversation with Moses and Elijah? Luke provides no answers. Thankfully, Mark does in his account of the transfiguration: “And as they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). So the reason they were silent is that Jesus had commanded them to be (something Mark never fails to mention). Maybe Luke knew about Mark’s story and didn’t feel a need to repeat this tidbit. Perhaps, but that only goes to show that he was not just copying Mark’s account. He is providing independent verification of the same event.

Undesigned Coincidence #5: Pilate’s (Attempted) Exoneration

In Luke 23, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of forbidding tribute to Caesar and setting himself up as a king. This would indeed be a capital offense under Roman law. Yet we get this puzzling exchange: And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” (Luke 23:3-4). Wait, what? Jesus just admitted to a very serious crime and Pilate finds no guilt in him. Something doesn’t add up. Only when we turn to John do things become clear:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”

John 18:33-38

Here we see that Pilate understands this to be an internal Jewish squabble and Jesus even declares that “my kingdom is not of this world”. Thus, he is of no threat to Pilate, since he is not trying to set up some sort of political rule in Pilate’s territory. John helps explain why Pilate in Luke made what at first appears to be an illogical decision. Notice also that only Luke records the accusation by the Jews that Jesus was a king. Thus, Luke explains Pilate’s line of questioning in John.

Undesigned Coincidence #6: An Accusation at the Cross

Mark records that people who saw Jesus on the cross derided him by saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30). Yet nowhere in Mark (or Matthew or Luke, for that matter) does Jesus make this claim. It seems to come out of nowhere. But in John, in a different context entirely, we see the Jews ask Jesus for a sign and he replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John goes on to explain that Jesus was speaking metaphorically about his body being resurrected, but the metaphor was obviously lost on the crowd. Again, John clearly did not put this story in his gospel to explain the crowd’s cries in the synoptic gospels, but it unintentionally does so.

Undesigned Coincidence #7: Herod and John the Baptist

Matthew 14:1 tells us that Herod is worried that Jesus is actually John the Baptist raised from the dead. But where did Matthew get information about the nature of Herod Antipas’s thinking? Well, Luke, in a completely different context, tells us that one of the women who followed Jesus was “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager” (Luke 8:3). Surely she must have been Matthew’s source. Also, the gospels help explain a passage in Josephus about the death of John the Baptist. Here is what Josephus has to say about the Herod and his defeat at the hand of King Aretas IV of Nabatea in AD 36:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins only, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.

Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Ch. 5.2

While this account squares well with what the gospels tell us about John the Baptist, there’s one thread Josephus leaves hanging. Why did the people blame the defeat of Herod’s army on his execution of John? The two events don’t seem connected. Indeed, Josephus tells us earlier in his account (Book XVIII, Ch 5.1) that the war started because Herod had divorced Areta’s daughter Phasaelis after a long marriage so that he could marry Herodias, his half-brother’s wife. Only the gospels (Matthew 14:4; Mark 6:18; Luke 3:19) tell us that the real reason for John the Baptist’s arrest and execution was his public condemnation of Herod’s new marriage. Thus, the opinion of the Jews that the two events were connected makes more sense, since the cause of the conflict and the cause of John’s death were one and the same. Only in concert with the gospels does Josephus’s account make sense.

Undesigned Coincidence #8: The Feeding of the 5,000

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle (other than the resurrection of Jesus) to occur in all four gospels. Let’s focus here on three: Mark (6:31-44), Luke (9:12-17), and John (6:1-14). Mark is careful to note that Jesus asked the crowd to sit on the “green grass” (Mark 6:39). Why does he make note of this? John provides the answer. He (and he alone) tells us that the miracle occurred in the lead-up to Passover (i.e. March or April, see John 6:4), which just so happens to be the time when the region around the sea of Galilee receives the most rain. This also explains why there were such large crowds on the move, as everyone was on their way to Jerusalem for the feast (something the synoptics don’t bother to mention). Moving on, John tells us that Jesus asks Philip to buy bread for the crowd and Andrew pipes up with an idea to help (John 6:5-9), but why, of all the disciples, did Jesus single out Philip? Well, Luke provides the answer. It is his gospel that tells us that the miracle took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), and, flipping back to John, we see that Philip is from Bethsaida, “the city of Andrew and Peter” (John 1:44). So, since Philip was local, he would have known where to get bread quickly, thus explaining Jesus’ question. And if Andrew was a local, it might explain how he was able to find the boy with the barley loaves and the fish. Lastly, to bring in the fourth gospel, in Matthew 11:21 Jesus declares “Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Yet Jesus had not done any mighty works in Bethsaida in Matthew’s gospel to this point. Only in Luke do we see that the feeding of the 5000 occurred before the woes were declared (Luke 9:10-17 and Luke 10:13 respectively). So Luke explains something Matthew left hanging. Thus, the same story is interconnected between all four gospels in intricate ways down to the level of the smallest details.

Conclusion

Hopefully, these examples serve to make the point. For the record, Lydia McGrew counts nine instances when the synoptics explain John, six times when John explains the synoptics, and four times that the synoptics explain each other. If these stories were made up later, why would the writers go to the trouble of connecting the stories in such esoteric ways? Indeed, why would any loose ends be left at all? Those who claim that the gospels are unreliable try to have it both ways. On the one hand, they say that the gospels are so hopelessly contradictory that they must be fabrications developed over time. On the other hand, when faced with coincidences like these, they turn around and say the later forgers must have coordinated their stories so that they appeared more plausible. So the authors of the gospels were simultaneously hopelessly inept at keeping their story straight and secret geniuses at putting in corroborating facts. The more likely scenario is that we have in front of us four separate accounts of the same events told with different emphases and by different witnesses. This accounts both for the discrepancies between the stories and the unintended coincidences. Any other explanation proves either contradictory or convoluted. To once again quote Peter J. Williams: “Supposing the authors handed on faithfully what they knew yields simple explanations, while supposing they made things up produces complex ones.” Yet even with these four sources for Jesus’ life, some wonder if we really have the whole story. It’s a legitimate question. Are there other, more reliable sources for the life of Jesus? Haven’t we discovered new gospels that revolutionize our understanding of Jesus? We turn to that question in the next post.

Sources:

Secondary Sources Consulted:

Peter J. Williams has an excellent chapter in Can We Trust the Gospels? on this topic. Also helpful, as always, was Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.

Secondary Sources for further research:

The original book on this topic was J.J. Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testament, an Argument of their Veracity (New York: Robert Carter, 1847). The most up-to-date work on the topic is Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard, 2017).

Aren’t the Gospels Full of Errors and Contradictions?

Historical Reliability vs. Biblical Inerrancy

Biblical skeptics pointing out supposed errors and contradictions in the Bible, and evangelicals providing explanations for those errors and contradictions, is the Internet’s version of a carnival game. Like whack-a-mole, evangelicals bang down an objection in one area only to have another one pop up elsewhere. It’s less than edifying for all involved. Now, to some fundamentalist Christians, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy requires that every single fact in Holy Scripture be 100% accurate or we would have to reject the entire Bible. Other Christians believe that the Bible is infallible, meaning that in matters of faith and practice it is reliable and trustworthy. Both groups believe that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. Skeptics generally like to attack the first group, because each new attack is seen as an existential threat to the very foundation of Christianity. The problem with this for the skeptic is that this is not how secular historical inquiry is done. If a document has a single error within it, that does not invalidate the source. The general reliability and accuracy of any source must be taken holistically. That said, if a source is riddled with factual errors and the sources about a person contradict wildly, our confidence in them should be tempered. In this series, I am not stepping into the debate over Biblical inerrancy. I am trying to see how a secular historian would evaluate a source. In general, you don’t go in assuming that the source is lying. You try to find a reasonable explanation for why the source says what it does. Playing “gotcha” with the Bible might be fun, but let’s not pretend that it has anything to do with a real desire to understand what actually happened.

All of that said, I think that most of the “contradictions” and “errors” that skeptics like to point to when trying to undermine the gospels can be adequately dealt with. The apparent problems generally derive from a modern misunderstanding about the nature of ancient documents and how ancient people wrote. I cannot hope to be comprehensive, but I have picked a dozen illustrative examples that show how we can reconcile the apparent errors in the gospels. If I didn’t get to your favorite, I apologize.

Contradiction #1: Matthew and Luke’s Genealogies

Matthew 1:16 (KJV) says “Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary”, while Luke 3:23 calls Joseph “the son of Heli”. This leads to two very different genealogies both terminating in the same person. The key difference is that Jacob begat Joseph, while Joseph is just the son of Heli. There are two possible explanations: (1) Heli is actually Mary’s father, and, since there is no Greek word for “son-in-law”, Joseph is simply called his son. We don’t have any evidence that Mary had brothers, but only a sister (John 19:25), meaning that the husband of Heli’s oldest daughter would be his heir (Num. 36:1-9), which explains why she married within the line of David. Since Luke was giving Mary’s account of Jesus’ birth and childhood, this explanation does make some sense. (2) Another possible explanation is Levirite marriage (Deut. 25:5-10), which requires an unmarried man to marry his brother’s widow if the brother had died childless. The first child to be born would be considered the dead brother’s child and heir. Thus, if Heli died childless, Jacob would have “begat” Joseph by Heli’s widow and the child would be “the son of Heli”. Now, Jacob and Heli are listed as having different fathers (Matthan and Matthat), but church historian Eusebius says that they were half-brothers from the same mother. Levirite marriage laws would still have applied. No matter which explanation you find more plausible, there is good reason to believe that both genealogies could be accurate.

Contradiction #2: Quirinius and the Census

Luke chapter 2 records a census being taken of during the reign (Gr. hegeomai) of Quirinius, which is why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth for Jesus’ birth. Skeptics point out three problems: (1) Joseph wouldn’t have to travel to Bethlehem and Mary would not have been counted at all; (2) A Roman census would not be done during Herod the Great’s rule; and, most importantly, (3) Quirinius did not become governor until AD 6, while Herod the Great died in 4 BC. The timelines don’t add up. Let’s address these one at a time. (1) is just wrong. Jewish law states that a man’s property is actually their father’s property (Deut. 21:15-17; Num. 27:6-11). Thus, Joseph would need to be in his place of origin to asses his property for taxation. Also, Mary would have to go with him because, as you might remember, she was pregnant under suspicious circumstances. There is a not-insignificant chance that she could be stoned for adultery while Joseph was gone (Deut. 22:23-24). As for (2), Josephus records that Herod had fallen out of favor with Augustus around 7 BC and was not really trusted by Roman authorities (see Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI, 9.3). Since Herod died shortly after Christ’s birth, it’s believable that Rome would want to do a census of their vassal state if the king was in ill health. Now number (3) requires a bit more explanation. Luke 2:2 says that this was the “first” (Gr. protos) census while Quirinius was governor, but that word can often mean “before”. Luke’s lack of articles in this verse makes the translation unclear and may even support the latter reading. If so, he is referring to a census before Quirinius’s more famous census of AD 6, which provoked a rebellion by Judas the Galilean (hence Luke bringing it up). It’s also possible that Quirinius was holding a different position (hegeomai doesn’t mean governor) under Herod during the earlier census. Either way, I’m inclined to give Luke, of all the gospel writers, the benefit of the doubt here because he so consistently gets the political situation correct elsewhere in his gospel and Acts. Luke is the most careful historian of the four and a flub this bad seems unlikely, especially since he interviewed Mary (who would remember that long a journey while pregnant!).

Contradiction #3: The Flight to Egypt

In Matthew 2:13-23, we see the Holy Family escape the clutches of Herod the Great by fleeing to Egypt and staying there until he died, only then returning to Nazareth. But Luke 2:39 says that they returned to Nazareth after presenting Jesus in the temple. Which was it? Here we have a good chance to look at how ancient biographies were written. Notice that in the next two verses of Luke, twelve years pass! Moreover, Luke 2:52 refers to a period of 18 years where Jesus ages from 12 to 30 (see Luke 3:23). Nothing about Luke 2:39 implies chronological immediacy. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke have different emphases in their two gospels and thus choose to highlight different events. Matthew is concerned with Old Testament fulfillment and 1:18-2:23 of his gospel shows Jesus fulfilling five Old Testament prophecies. Meanwhile, Luke is the only one to record the story of boy Jesus in the temple, which he clearly felt was more illustrative of Jesus the Son of God. These two accounts can be reconciled if you understand that neither is trying to be comprehensive, but is choosing stories to make a theological point.

Contradiction #4: The Order of Satan’s Temptations

In Matthew 4:1-11, Satan tempts Jesus to (1) turn stones to bread and then (2) throw himself off the roof of the temple and then (3) to worship Satan himself to gain authority. Luke 4:5-12 flips those final two temptations. Again, this is easily resolved if you remember that theme trumps chronology. Luke’s use of the Greek kai and de (“and” and “but”) does not imply that the temptations happened in the order he records them, and Luke’s emphasis on the temple means he would want that to be the final one. Also, by the way, some scoff at the idea that Jesus could see “all the kingdoms of the world” from “a very high mountain”. Let me make an important point I will be forced to reiterate often: ancient people were not stupid, and they were often much smarter than you and me. They knew that nobody could see every kingdom in even the known world from a high mountain. Clearly, we are dealing with a vision here, since the point of the story is the temptation to absolute power by a deal with the devil. After fasting for forty days, Jesus was probably hallucinating and the visions of the temple and the kingdoms of the world resulted. I swear, sometimes skeptics can be the worst biblical literalists!

Contradiction #5: Misquoting Jesus

I am stealing this heading from the title of Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, which I will respond to in greater detail in a future post. What I want to cover here are the differences in quotes from Jesus and other characters in the different gospels. One example is in the Sermon on the Mount vs. the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mat. 5:3) vs. “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). Of course, this was probably two different versions of the same sermon preached to different audiences at different times. But it also could reflect Matthew’s desire to emphasize the spiritual nature of the teaching. In another example, the centurion at the cross says, “truly this man was the Son of God!” in Mark 15:39 and “surely this was a righteous man” in Luke 23:47. Mark is wishing to emphasize Jesus as the Son of God, while Luke continually shows the innocence and righteousness of Jesus.

What we need to understand here is how ancient authors used quotations. Modern quotation marks originated in the sixteenth century, and Greek has no marks at all to set off speech, making it unclear sometimes when a quote should end (John 3:16 is the most prominent example — it’s not clear if Jesus is still talking or if John is providing commentary). Modern writers are married to “bounded quotations” meaning anything within quotation marks must be word-for-word accurate, with no words added or omitted. Ancient authors did not follow these rules. Yet they did feel a need to record truthfully what people were saying (remember what we’ve said about the nature of oral tradition). Consider this quote from the most reliable of all Greek historians, Thucydides:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.1

In a similar way, New Testament scholars argue that the gospels give us Jesus’ “authentic voice” (ipsissima vox) rather than his “literal words” (ipsissima verba). The gospels are not verbatim transcripts of the words of Jesus, but do convey “the general sense of what [he] really said”. Remember that the “informal controlled oral tradition” that would have transmitted Jesus’ words allowed for some poetic license, but would have insisted that the essential meaning not be changed. It is, in some sense, the difference between inerrant and infallible.

One last point: the repetition of Jesus’ teaching in different settings to different crowds and the poetic licence and divergent themes of the gospel authors accounts for the slightly different versions of the parables we see in the different gospels. See, for example, Matthew’s parable of the talents (25:14-30) and Luke’s parable of the ten minas (19:11-27) or Matthew’s wedding banquet (22:1-14) and Luke’s great feast (14:12-24). In particular, Luke often has to give context for strange Jewish customs to his Gentile audience that Matthew, writing for Jews, omits. Always remember that context and audience matter.

Contradiction #6: How many Blind Men, Demoniacs, and Angels Were There?

In Matthew 8:28 says that Jesus healed two demon-possessed men, while Mark 5:2 says there was only one. Matthew 20:30 has Jesus healing two blind men outside Jericho, while Mark 10:46 records only one. Lastly, Luke 24:4 says that there were two angels at Jesus’ empty tomb, while Mark 16:5 records only one. Each time it is Mark who is reducing the number of people, in keeping with his shorter account. Notice that Mark does not say that only one person or angel was present — he is merely highlighting a single character to illustrate the point of the story. I sound like a broken record, but different emphases lead to different ways of telling the story. Mark’s simple, no-frills style leads him to omit information that he deems less important. In fact, he is the only one who gives us Bartimaeus’s name in the healing of the blind men. Perhaps he felt that the personal touch Jesus gave to one man was worth emphasizing, or maybe Bartimaeus was still known to the church when Mark was writing. None of this means he is contradicting what Matthew and Luke are saying.

Contradiction #7: The Gadarenes vs. The Gerasenes

Speaking of Matthew 8:28 and Mark 5:1-2 (also Luke 8:26), did those demon-possessed men get healed in the region of the Gadarenes, as Matthew has it, or the Gerasenes, as Mark and Luke have it? Well, it’s complicated. Gadara was a city southeast of the Sea of Galilee, but too far from the sea for pigs to run into it (Mark 5:13). The “region” of Gadara on the other hand, did include the seaside area. Meanwhile, Gerasa was even farther southeast and not associated with the sea at all. The most likely explanation is that the healing took place near Gergesa, a village close to the sea on the east. The Aramaic name of this town was Khersa, and so Mark, unaware of the Greek name Gergesa, transliterated Khersa to Gerasa, thus “Gerasenes”. Luke probably followed Mark. Matthew, the only local boy of the three, realized the confusion this caused and thus spoke of the region of Gadara, which would have included the town of Gergesa/Khersa. Other explanations have been offered, but the prevalence of similar names certainly explains the confusion. The point of the story does not change no matter where it happened, and the oral tradition would have considered the healing itself more important than the setting.

Contradiction #8: The Centurion and His Emissaries

In Luke 7:1-10, a centurion sends “elders of the Jews” to ask Jesus to heal his servant. In Matthew’s version (8:5-13), the centurion himself comes to make the request. This seeming contradiction is easily dealt with if you keep in mind that representatives of an important person were seen as speaking for that person. Just as today we would take the words of the president’s press secretary as coming from the president himself, so would ancient people conflate the centurion and those who spoke on his behalf. I mean, we often say that “the White House” says something — I hope future historians don’t try to argue that the building was talking! Another example of this would be in John 19:1 where it says that “Pilate took Jesus and flogged him”. By that, John doesn’t mean that Pilate personally whipped Jesus, but that he had someone else do it on his behalf. We should try not to be more literal than the fundamentalists.

Contradiction #9: The Clearing of the Temple: John vs. the Synoptics

In the synoptic gospels (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46), Jesus clears the temple of the moneychangers during the final week of his life, after he has made his triumphal entry. However, in John (2:13-17), Jesus does this at the very beginning of his ministry. Which was it? Different scholars have handled this in different ways. Some treat it as the same event and which the synoptic gospels have happening later because they only portray one of Jesus’ trips to Jerusalem for Passover while John portrays all three (this also explains why the synoptics omit the raising of Lazarus, which occurred on Jesus’ second trip to Jerusalem). The synoptic gospels may have moved the event chronologically to demonstrate the danger Jesus was to the Jewish authorities as the narrative approaches his arrest and trial. Other scholars agree that it was a single event, but say that it was John who moved the event to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (citing it’s awkward placement in John’s overall chronology). John might have moved it to give a sort of dramatic jump-start to Jesus revolutionary ministry and message. Finally, many scholars simply believe that Jesus cleared the temple twice, the first time in a smaller way that the authorities were able to write off. If this is the case, that second clearing would have given them even more reason to want him arrested and executed. No matter which theory you ascribe to, what we have from a historian’s perspective is multiple attestation of a similar incident from disparate sources. Theme over chronology, people, theme over chronology.

Contradiction #10: The Suicide of Judas

In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas throws his thirty pieces of silver at the feet of the chief priests and elders and then goes and hangs himself. The Jewish leaders decide they cannot keep blood money, so they buy a field and call it “The Field of Blood”. However, in Acts 1:16-20, Judas buys the field himself, falls headlong into it and his guts come gushing out, and that’s why it’s called “the field of blood”. What actually happened? While I generally don’t like attempts to harmonize two stories together (it’s often too cute by half), I think this one has a pretty plausible harmonization. Judas hung himself and his partially decomposed body fell from the noose and onto the ground, bursting open his abdomen. Judas had unwittingly “purchased” the very field where he died via the money he gave to the chief priests. The Greek word ektesato in Acts means “acquire” or “possess”, while the word in Matthew is egorasan which means “to buy”, thus the chief priests bought a field that would belong to Judas. “The Field of Blood” thus has a double meaning of a field bought with blood money and a field literally soaked in Judas’s blood. In fact, the chief priests would not have been able to keep blood money, as it was unclean, so buying the field on behalf of a suicide victim would deal with the problem of the money and the field in one fell swoop. In any case, this story shows how you can sometimes conflate two stories together to get a fuller picture of the truth.

Contradiction #11: Mark 2:26 and Abiathar

Since Bart Ehrman has somehow become my bete noire (he seems like an honest, if biased and frequently mistaken, scholar), I figure I should address the contradiction that, according to his book Misquoting Jesus, led him from fundamentalism to agnosticism. In Mark 2:26, Jesus says “[David] entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat.” The problem is that this actually happened while Ahimilek was high priest (see 1 Sam 21:1-6). The actual phrase in Mark 2:26, Gr. epi Abiathar archiereos, would be literally translated “upon Abiathar, the high priest”, which makes no sense. A better translation would be “in the passage about Abiathar, the high priest” (the footnote in the ESV translation has this interpretation). This would refer to a much larger chunk of Scripture than just those six verses in 1 Samuel. Abiathar is mentioned twenty-eight times in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which makes him a much more significant character than Ahimilek, who is mentioned thirteen times, all in the latter part of 1 Samuel (and three of the times he’s mentioned, it’s because he’s Abiathar’s son!). Thus, this section of scripture would be much more associated with Abiathar. Indeed, the only reason for the translation of epi as “in the days of” is because that’s how the KJV translated it. According to Greek lexicons (like Bauer’s Lexicon), the alternate translation from the ESV footnote is preferable. If that is the case, Ehrman lost his childhood faith over the mistranslation of a single Greek word. Those who lose their faith over such things are looking for reasons to leave. Historians who try to discredit the reliability of the gospels over such trivial (possible) errors also usually have ulterior motives.

Contradiction #12: Deliberate Formal Contradictions in John

In his teaching, Jesus frequently redefined the meanings of familiar words and concepts. He liked to use paradox to force his listeners to think more deeply about the kingdom of God. This is particularly noticeable in John, where Jesus seems to go out of his way to contradict himself to make a point. Some examples:

  • “You know me, and you know where I come from.” (John 7:28) vs. “For I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” (8:14)
  • “If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” (5:31) vs. ““Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true” (8:14)
  • “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.” (8:15-16)
  • “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” (12:47) vs. “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (9:39)

There are, of course, explanations of these. In the first one, Jesus is playing on the fact that he’s from Nazareth and also from God. In the second and third, he’s implying that his testimony is not solo and that he is not judging because he and the Father are one (John 10:30) and it is the Father doing these things. In the fourth, he’s riffing on the concept of “judgment” meaning both punishment and the ability to see clearly. But all this feels like explaining a joke. The point of these “contradictions” is to provide food for thought, and yet some accuse Jesus of teaching incompatible things. “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).

Conclusion

As I said at the start, there is a sort of “whack-a-mole” feel to all of this. I could write an essay twice as long as this one, providing explanations for each and every potential error and contradiction in the gospels. But the point for the historian should not be to search for holes in his or her sources, but to judge whether the sources can generally be relied upon. Taken together with my previous post, the possible resolutions to the contradictions (and, more importantly, the principles behind them) should give us confidence that the gospels are generally reliable. You may find some of these explanations more plausible than others; you may still feel that some of these contradictions and errors remain. That’s fine. But keep in mind that absolute unanimity between the sources would be just as suspect as a degree of difference. The fact that our sources disagree on some minor details actually strengthens the case for their reliability. That said, there are intriguing ways in which these four gospels unintentionally reinforce one another and buttress one another’s stories. But this post is already too long. We’ll cover unintended coincidences next time….

Sources

Primary Source:

Since I brought it up, if you know Koine Greek (full disclosure: I don’t) and want to really dive into the nuances of the words, a commonly used Greek lexicon is F.W. Danker, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), which is often cited as BDAG for the original German-language editor Walter Bauer, and three English-language editors F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich

Secondary Sources Consulted:

The most helpful source for this post was Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, which has a nearly exhaustive list of “contradictions” and their possible resolutions. Peter J. Williams Can We Trust the Gospels? has a good section on deliberate formal contradictions in his otherwise too-brief chapter on this topic. Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus, was useful for the section on how the ancients quoted speech.

Secondary Sources for Further Research:

For comprehensive coverage of all kinds of Biblical problems from authors committed to Biblical inerrancy, see Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan Academic, 2001), and Norman L. Geisler & Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992). I should note that Craig Blomberg and Norman Geisler take vastly different positions on how to interpret difficult passages, and there are plenty of Christians committed to the truth of the Bible who would find Geisler’s maximalist position on inerrancy unhelpful.