Deacon Duncan (henceforth DD) of the Evangelical Realism blog is reviewing William Lane Craig’s book On Guard. In the most recent post, Selective Sources, he is commenting on Craig’s treatment concerning the historical Jesus. I have not read this book by Craig but DD’s post contains a few problems common to arguments from skeptics that should be addressed. I will restrict my focus to whether the Gospels are the best sources for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus and whether the Gospels are generally reliable on historical matters.
Christianity is, above all else, a story. . . . Miracles like healing someone born blind, or resurrecting someone who died three days ago, only happen in the tales told from the pulpit and in ancient parchments.
Notice how it is merely assumed that miracles do not happen in the present. It is hardly surprising that when you presuppose metaphysical naturalism, and you judge the Gospels on this basis, that the Gospels are determined to be of questionable historical value. But what if we take an approach that is neutral concerning the occurrence of miracles? Craig S. Keener catalogs modern eyewitness testimony that suggests, at the very least, that the healing of those blind from birth and the raising of the dead (among other miracles) may still happen today. Here is a sample:
Josiah Mataika from Fiji noted that when his aunt gave birth, the baby was blind and expected to live only a few days; his grandmother, a pastor, led the family to pray and fast in hopes that God might intervene. The child’s eyes were healed, and she is now in third grade. (Keener 294-295)
Yet however one chooses to explain them, many stories from China cannot be simply gossip; they derive from persons directly affected by them. A young man recounted that as a boy, he was given up by the doctor for dead, but when his father desperately cried out to God and dedicated the boy to his service, the boy quickly recovered. A Three-Self pastor reported that he found in his church believers praying over a girl that the local doctor had just pronounced dead; the desperate mother had brought her to the church. The girl recovered. (Keener 301)
[Dr. J.] Ayo[deji Adewuya] offered his eyewitness account of a nature miracle and then narrated how his newborn son, pronounced dead at birth by a midwife on January 1, 1981, was raised after twenty minutes of prayer. The son, none the worse for the experience, grew up and has completed his master of science degree. (Keener 310)
I have seen the eyes of the blind opened immediately; one was an old man, one a child of six years of age born blind. Others have told me that they had begun to see. At the last morning’s service a Bengali father ran after me to show me that his son, for twelve years a paralytic, and one of the stretcher-cases who could not move when brought to Mr. Hickson, was walking away from the cathedral. (Keener 407 quoting Hickson, Heal, 65-66)
In May 1973, in Ogoniland, Nigeria, the eyes of a five- or six-year-old girl born blind looked like empty sockets with skin draped over them; no slits were visible in the eyelids. When Geoffrey Numbere, whom we encountered in chapter 9, prayed, she opened her eyes and could see; a blind boy was also healed at the time, and much of the village of Dere was converted. (Keener 516)
An Indonesian Christian author recounts that he witnessed the instant healing of a seventeen-year-old man blind and deaf from birth, known to everyone in the village. (Keener 520)
One book documents a boy in Kinshasa, Congo, returning to life hours after being pronounced dead and left in the morgue, at the moment that Christian evangelist Mahesh Chavda prayed. In this case the source provides medical attestation, including photographs of the raised boy and his earlier death certificate. Others tell of a local minister in the same country who raised a woman dead four days, despite the unbearable stench beforehand. (Keener 553)
Nevertheless, even if we explain these sorts of cures naturally, it is hard to naturally explain Francis Pascal, cured of “blindness” and “paralysis of the lower limbs,” at the age of three years and ten months, on August 28, 1938. While the keenness of his vision remained less than the average person’s, this child who had been completely blind before the cure was now an active reader and writer. Other blind persons were also cured of documented, organic optic atrophy, able thereafter to see. One might also consider Marie Bigot, cured of blindness, deafness, and hemiplegia, on October 10, 1954. (Keener 682)
Based on multiple surveys and polls, Keener notes that hundreds of millions of people alive today claim that they have witnessed or experienced miraculous healings (205, 238-239, 313, 342, 505-506). Again, it is not that hundreds of millions of people believe in miracles (though that is true too), it is that hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed or experienced miracles. If miracles do not occur today, as atheists contend, then they must believe that each and every one of these hundreds of millions of people are either lying or mistaken. A substantial argument needs to be provided to justify such a belief. Merely asserting miracles do not happen today is not going to cut it.
In the interest of remaining neutral towards the occurrence of miracles in this post, I will not assume the above quoted accounts are genuine miracles. I will merely point out that the kinds of miracles narrated in the New Testament are narrated by credible, modern eyewitnesses and, therefore, the presence of miracle accounts in the NT is not a sufficient reason to doubt that the NT documents are rooted in eyewitness testimony.
Moving on, DD comments on another supposed problem:
The classic problem, of course, is that the primary historical evidence is highly biased: the documents that survive were mostly written by men who wrote for the explicit purpose of persuading people that Jesus was the Christ. What’s more, we know historically that the early Christians went out of their way to destroy any evidence and/or testimony that was contrary to the message they wanted to preach, even from non-Christian sources, so we don’t have much in the way of balance.
It is true that the NT documents were largely written either to persuade people that Jesus was the Christ or to confirm them in that belief. However, the mere fact that an author writes with a purpose and has a bias is not a sufficient reason to accuse the author of being inaccurate on historical matters. Each and every historian writes with a purpose and has biases, yet we do not throw our hands up in despair that nothing can be learned of history.
Unfortunately DD does not provide any examples of when Christians destroyed documents they found unpalatable. I can merely note that the accounts of Christ in Josephus (even after Christian additions are removed) and Tacitus are consistent with the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels and that the Church Fathers preserved, to some degree, the views of Jews, pagans, and heretics in writings such as Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, and Origen’s Against Celsus. We also have many extant apocryphal Christian writings, including the Nag Hammadi Library.
Truth is consistent with itself. If we want to know whether the Gospels are true, we need to ask, “Are these stories consistent with themselves? Are they consistent with the real world we see all around us?” While modern scholarship does help, there has long been fairly conclusive evidence that the Bible is a myth (or rather, a not-entirely-harmonious collection of myths) that ought to be taken with a big grain of salt, just from the internal and external contradictions.
While DD speaks of the Bible in this quote his post is focused mostly on the NT and the Gospels in particular. Neither the Gospels nor the other NT writings are of the genre of myth (a notoriously difficult genre to define). As demonstrated by Richard A. Burridge in What are the Gospels?, the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. But it may be more likely that DD is using the term “myth” to indicate the Gospels are not historically accurate so let us look at his other questions.
Are the Gospels consistent with each other? I would say yes. There may be discrepancies but these are usually minor while the core of the accounts are similar. Historians routinely use sources that are not perfectly harmonious with each other. To object to the accuracy of the Gospels on such grounds is to apply a double standard when doing history. One can also note that the Gospels are consistent with non-canonical documents and archaeological discoveries.
Are the Gospels consistent with the “real world”? I am guessing DD is implying that since miracles do not occur in the “real world” then the Gospels are not consistent with the “real world”? But Keener has already demonstrated that miracle accounts are ubiquitous in the real world. That Jesus considered himself a miracle worker, that followers of Jesus considered him a miracle worker, and that non-Christians considered him a doer of marvelous deeds cannot be objected to on the basis that it is incompatible with the “real world.”
Ironically, DD then makes historically dubious claims himself:
The Gospel is a story, and the “New Testament” is the official Catholic version of that story, selected centuries later by theologians (not historians) for the express purpose of promoting the official version. Right from the start, Craig tries to implant the idea that the New Testament is somehow more authoritative and trustworthy, even though we know they’re unashamedly biased. Naturally, he follows the traditional apologetic for the canon of Scripture.
The canonical Gospels were not selected centuries after they were written. The four canonical Gospels were surely authoritative in the time of Irenaeus (ca. 180) (Against Heresies 3.11.8). That’s less than a century after the Gospel of John was completed if you accept it was written in the 90s. In Who Chose the Gospels?, C. E. Hill shows that the canonical Gospels were chosen long before the Roman Catholic Church had any wide-reaching power. DD is also unfair towards Craig. Historians consider the canonical Gospels to be the best sources for reconstructing Jesus’ life because they are the extant sources closest to the witnesses of Christ’s ministry. Their canonicity is irrelevant for the historian’s purpose.
DD again mentions vague claims that early Christians destroyed books:
Plus they burned a bunch of books so that we wouldn’t need to bother comparing them to the official accounts. It wouldn’t do to leave behind evidence that might show, say, that the Gospels of Peter and of Thomas actually had historical antecedents dating back before the Gospel of John. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but we won’t know now because early Christians were very good at wiping out any evidence not in their favor.
It is not clear what alleged events he is referring to but the first sentence is historically inaccurate. I already noted above that early Christians wrote (multiple-)book-length responses to non-Christian arguments, which required them to collect these heretical books (Hill 58-62). It is not possible that the earliest Christians had the power to destroy books even if they wanted to:
At this point in history [the time of Irenaeus], as Raymond Starr points out, even the emperor had trouble pulling off such a demand [the destruction of books]. Because books were all copied by hand and privately circulated, ‘suppression or official discouragement could never be entirely successful nor were they expected to be. When a book was removed or barred by order of the emperor from the imperial public libraries, the author would be disgraced, but his writings were not destroyed, since they could still circulate in private hands.’
Needless to say, no church — not Irenaeus’s church in Lyons nor the church in Rome — had anything resembling the kind of imperial power (the kind which would later be exercised against Christians by the Roman government) to search out private copies of a detested book, seize them, and destroy them. In sum, Irenaeus did not demand that congregations destroy any Gospels, alleged apostolic letters, or revelations he had not ‘chosen’ for them. (Hill 61-62)
Both the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas are still extant. A few scholars attempt to employ these two Gospels in their historical reconstructions but most reject them because they are later and clearly, in some places, dependent on the canonical Gospels. In other words, the canonical Gospels are preferred on historical, not canonical, grounds.
DD then writes:
Craig’s next maneuver is to invoke the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in order to claim that the burden of proof is on the skeptic. This is a classic debate strategy: if you have the evidence to back up your claim, then you want the burden of proof, because this will give you the opportunity to present your evidence. Craig, however, can’t back up his claims, since the Gospel talks about things that are entirely unlike anything we see in real life. Therefore his goal is to push the burden of proof onto his opponents.
I don’t have the context of Craig’s statement but I think there is a context in which it makes sense. If the Gospels are historically accurate when we can check their claims then it is likely that they are accurate when we cannot check their claims. In this context it is reasonable that the earliest accounts are “innocent until proven guilty.” The believer has provided evidence for the general accuracy of the Gospels and the onus is on the skeptic to respond to this evidence.
Later, DD comments on Craig’s point that the Jews transmitted sacred traditions accurately:
Look at point 3, that “Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was reliable.” That would be great if Moses had written the New Testament. But he didn’t. Jewish traditions don’t apply to the gospels because the gospels were not part of Jewish sacred tradition. Even if you say that Christian stories later became a sacred tradition, that doesn’t cover the initial development of the tradition.
Craig does not need to refer to the transmission of Jewish sacred tradition. Birger Gerhardsson notes that Jews faithfully transmitted the teachings of rabbis despite the fact that rabbinic teaching was not sacred like the Hebrew Bible. We merely need to consider the Gospels in their historical context and in light of statements from early Christians about the transmission of tradition. The notion that the Jesus tradition was transmitted in a completely chaotic and unreliable manner has no evidence to support it. Note again that I am not defending the claim that the Gospels are perfectly accurate on historical matters, I am merely noting they are generally accurate.
Burridge, Richard A. What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. 2nd ed. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.
Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Gerhardsson, Birger. The Reliability of Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.
Hill, C. E. Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.
Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Baker Academic, 2011.