Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Transcript: "Why Trust the Gospels?" by Peter J. Williams

What we're gonna be considering in the next few minutes is the question of the reliability of the Gospels, the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which you find in the New Testament. But before we look at the question like historical reliability, one of the things we need to think about is the whole question of evidence. And here, Christianity has a very important principle for how we judge evidence, and that is the principle of consistency. We're not claiming that we alone have that principle. A lot of the time, people want someone to prove something about Christianity to them. Often what they mean by that is to prove as if they could prove it mathematically or philosophically. "Prove to me that God exists." The problem about that is, of course, is that sort of proof only exists in math (mathematics) and in philosophy.

Mathematics, of course, we know is a game. It's about certain principles of rules that you can put in at the beginning, and if you play according to those rules, you get a particular answer. Within formal logic in philosophy, you likewise have rules. You follow those rules, and you get a particular answer. But those things aren't really about real life. They have application to real life, but mathematics is about numbers, and numbers aren't things you that find in real life. You find that, of course, real objects have quantities, but it's not that a number is real in the same way.

So when we ask for a proof about the reliability of the Gospels, often that's an unreasonable thing to ask. So what I think a Christian is bound to ask is that someone is consistent when they ask for proof; that is, they're not asking for more proof when it comes to this historical matter than for any other historical matter, and they're not asking for more proof than the sort of proof that they act on in their lives. Some of the most important things, in fact, I'd say all of the most important things in life can't be proven in that philosophical or mathematical sense.

Take for instance the question of whether anyone at all loves you. Most of us would agree that it's important that some people love us, but can you prove that, say, your parents love you? Well, no, you can't. Look at all the evidence you might quote about how kind they have been to you and all the things they've done for you, but how can you prove that those actions have not been done through self-interest? Those sorts of things you can't prove in a mathematical and philosophical way. Does that mean it's not reasonable to believe it? No. Actually, these things are very reasonable to believe on the basis of evidence.

We have the sort of evidence we use to judge trustworthiness and reliability of people all the time. And so what I'm asking people should do with the Gospels is consider the evidence that they show for their own trustworthiness and reliability as witnesses, and whether Christian principle of consistency comes in. And of course, Christians believe that God will judge people using and probing them as to their own consistency is that whatever rule you've been using with other evidence, that is what it would be reasonable to use with the Gospel. You shouldn't be more skeptical about the Gospels than about anything else.

But before we come to think about the Four Gospels themselves, I want us to think about the spread of Christianity, because I think this sets a background for how we understand the reliability of the Gospels. I can go to non-Christian writers and find evidence about how far and how fast Christianity spread. Take for instance Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian who was alive as a young boy around the time when there was a great fire in Rome in the year 64, and he wrote about that and how probably Nero had started the fire and yet Nero then blame the Christians. And Tacitus writes about how there is a vast number of Christians in Rome at the time, and they are suffering, they are being persecuted for their faith. He confirms that Christianity began in Judea, that Christ was the founder of the Christian name, and that He suffered under Pontius Pilate who is the person mentioned in the Gospels and is the figure, the governor of the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and there he is around the year 64, so let's say the crucifixion was around the year 30 or 33. That's when it's generally dated. Well, within 30 or 35 years of the beginnings of Christianity, Christianity spread from Judea all the way to Rome, so to give you some analogies for that distance, if you go, for instance, from Rome all the way to the top of the Shetland Islands, off the top of Britain, that would give you a similar distance. If you wanted to go from Cuba all the way up to, say, West Michigan, that would be about the same distance as you'd find. It's a long way. Christianity had spread just in a few decades. That sort of distance.

We could also look at how Pliny, the governor of Northwest Turkey, the place called Bithynia, wrote to the emperor around the year 112, writing saying how many Christians there were in his area. Well, there he is, 80 years after Christianity began, and yet he describes what went on in a Christian meeting and describes how these people were treating Christ as a God to be worshipped, so that's not just an idea that grew up over a very long period of time. It's attested outside the Gospels quite early on.

Now when we think of the spread of Christianity, the one thing that it starts to show to me is that it was not a very good context in which things could just be made up. The idea that a lot of people have in their minds is that over 30 or 50 or 100 or 200 years, fundamental things in the Christian message were made up. So perhaps at first, Christians hadn't believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, and then over a long period of time, that idea just got attached onto Christianity. It's one of those things that happens as people repeat stories over a long period of time.

The idea of a legend like you would have with King Arthur. You have a long period of time and all sorts of stories can get attached to someone like Jesus. The problem with that is that if a very large number of people are Christians in Rome, suffering for their faith within only 30 or 35 years of the beginnings of Christianity, and that's a non-Christian claim about Christianity. You can find so many Christian claims saying exactly the same thing. If Christianity spread that far and that fast, it really is a very unfavorable environment in which you can have lots of core elements of the Christian message made up, because it's a bit like changing a publicity campaign halfway through the publicity campaign. It's very hard for that to happen. It's hard to think how Christianity spread at all without some core message. So you'd have to have whatever the original core message was obliterated by the new message, and of course, it's very difficult to have that new element coming in once there were so many Christians, because of course if Christians really are disorganized and if there isn't a central means, easy means of communication, then how would you impose any new development on those Christians which are in those different churches right across the Mediterranean? So logistically, I think the evidence of the spread of Christianity makes it very hard to imagine how lots of core elements of the Christian message could have been changed in any substantial way long after Christianity had begun to spread.

We then come to the question of Four Gospels. Well, as now we know from many different media reports, there are other gospels, so why should we favor the Four Gospels? Aren't those the Ffour Gospels that the Emperor Constantine imposed on people in the 4th century? That's the story which is commonly told. In fact, it's not at all like that. The other gospels, apocryphal gospels—gospels like the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and so on—in fact, our witnesses to the Four Gospels. They depend on them. They use some of their wordings, some of their ideas. So rather than being evidence against those four Gospels, they're in fact evidence for the Four Gospels.

Moreover, people say that it is power that imposed the Four Gospels on people. Perhaps it was some great powerful committee, because we know that in the 4th century, there was a big church council, the Council of Nicea. Perhaps that imposed the Four Gospels. Well, history says otherwise. We know what was discussed in the Council of Nicea. There are records, and one of the things they never discussed was what should be the books in the Bible. So the idea that that Council decided what the Four Gospels should be doesn't work.

In fact, we find a rather interesting pattern which is different—which is that the Four Gospels are attested in a very wide geographical area before there was any central Christian power. In fact, when Christians were in a very weak position. If we go to the earliest copy of the Four Gospels—it's incomplete, it's fragmented, it's broken off—we go to Dublin and there, from around the year 225, there was a copy of the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts. That's in Dublin, but it's thought to have come originally from Southern Egypt. So we have there in Southern Egypt by around the year 225, that's a hundred years before the Council of Nicea, we have Four Gospels. Before Constantine was even born, someone has put those into a manuscript. That's Southern Egypt.

We could then go across to France and we could go to Lyons, the great city where Irenaeus was the bishop around the year 185, and he wrote at that time about how having the Four Gospels was like having four cardinal directions, having four winds? It was so natural. It was hard to imagine having anything other than four Gospels. Well, Irenaeus was not someone who is far disconnected from the New Testament writers. In fact, it is said that he was the disciple of a disciple of Jesus—a disciple of Polycarp who is a disciple of John who is the disciple of Jesus. He's not a long way disconnected, and he says having four Gospels is very natural thing, like having four winds. And he wasn't just some bishop having a cushy life. His predecessor was martyred in the job, and he was martyred in the Job.

So we have Southern Egypt and France each having four Gospels, but we can go back a little bit further to the year, around the year 175, when a man called Tatian, probably in Syria, made something called the diatessaron. A diatessaron is a harmony of the Four Gospels, taking them and putting them into a chronological narrative. So they are chronologically arranged, but the point is, he affirms having four Gospels.

Well, just think about the geographical spread we have there: Southern Egypt, Syria, and France. It's quite a wide range of places and those places are before there is any central power having the Four Gospels. Notice Rome isn't on the list. What we have is with no centralized power, we find the Four Gospels. So do we explain that because some committee asked them? I would say, "Quite the contrary". The evidence suggests that the credentials of the Four Gospels were what made them set apart and made them recognized. Some people say, "Who chose the Four Gospels?". To me, that's rather like asking who chose the winner at the Olympic 1500-meter race. Well, there is a panel of judges, and they would be called in if there was a photo finish, but if there is no photo finish and there is no infraction of the regulations, then of course, the person who wins the fastest. That's what really decides the matter. And so I would say the credentials of the Four Gospels forced them onto people.

Now on to the Gospels themselves. What evidence do we have within them of their reliability? What of the striking things, and an issue of agreement about the Gospels is that both, whether you take traditional discussion about the Gospels or some skeptical discussion about the Gospels nowadays, people broadly agree that three or four of those Gospels were written outside the land in which Jesus ministered, outside Israel, outside Palestine. They were done away from there.

Traditionally, it's thought that perhaps Matthew's Gospel was written in Judea. Nowadays people tend to think that three or four of the Gospels were written outside the land. And yet what ts so striking is that they show intimate knowledge of the land. Now that's not a trivial thing, because it's in fact it's very hard to get hold of that sort of information if you're writing a long way away. If you are living, let's say in Rome, and you want to find out about the geography of Judea and so on, how will you know the villages there are in Judea or Galilee? Can you go into a bookshop and find a book on the villages of Galilee? No, you can't. People wouldn't write such an uninteresting book. If they wrote about geography, they would write about supposedly the great places of the world, and Galilee was not on the list.

So how is that the Gospels have that sort of knowledge? They not only know the names of small villages, they know traveling distances. They know where the land goes up and down. These are the sorts of things you can just read as you go through the Four Gospels.

By the way, the Apocryphal gospels have almost zero geographical knowledge—hardly any mention of towns. The main town mentioned in the Apocryphal gospels is the town, Jerusalem, which of course is the capital which many people would have heard of, so there's no impressive geographical knowledge there. It's quite a contrast. But it's not just that the Four Gospels have, for instance, the names of places right. They also get other things right, which would require local knowledge. They get discussion of the weather right. Often you get talk of storms suddenly arising on the Sea of Galilee. There, of course, we know storms do suddenly arise. When they describe the storms, they don't describe them as having rains. They describe them as windstorms. Well, of course, that's the way it was. There wasn't much precipitation, but there could be a lot of wind in that narrow valley.

They know what the trade was. They know that they were fishermen, and that they would do this sort of thing. They get the jobs that people have in the right relative proportion. You take a story which is found in Luke's Gospel of a man called, Zacchaeus, supposedly a little man, a chief tax collector, living in Jericho, who climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. You don't ask about the plausibility of the story. Well, one of the things that is talk about in Luke's narrative is Jesus is on a journey going up to Jerusalem, and we know that if you are going from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jericho was very much en route because you would go down using the Jordan valley. We also know that it's the sort of place that you would put a tax place for making sure that people who came by were taxed. We then look at the question of the sycamore tree, and you ask the question like, "Well, were there sycamore trees in Jericho?", and in fact, there were. When you look at the distribution of sycamore trees in the ancient world, and even today you can find sycamores in Jericho. It's that sort of thing.

So how would a writer who hadn't been to that city know that there were sycamore trees in that town? In fact, the species, ficus sycomorus, was not found in Turkey, Greece, or Italy. So a writer in those countries probably wouldn't even have heard of that particular plant.

The Gospels also know about local languages, the dialects. They quote various words in Aramaic, particularly Mark's Gospel and John's Gospel. How would someone who's well away from the land get that geographical knowledge? So these sorts of things are very surprising if the documents were written in a different place, and that sort of information can only be explained if they have reliable people who are handing testimony on to them.

Now someone might say, "Well, that only shows that the frame of the narrative has correct details. Historical fiction can do that. Why can't the Gospels be historical fiction?". The problem with that is it doesn't go very well with the common idea that when the Gospels got stories wrong about Jesus, it was through exaggeration and general carelessness in transmission, the sort of processes that might go on in the creation of a legend, because what we know is that lack of attention to detail in one area tends to spill over to lack of attention to detail in another area. So if you got great attention to detail in terms of place names, and in terms of plant names, and in terms of the general environment of a story, it's very hard to say that all the other aspects of the story got changed through some corrupting and careless process.

When we look at the Apocryphal gospels, we find a wonderful contrast. They don't have geographical knowledge. They don't have the right cultural knowledge. They don't have the linguistic insight which the Four Gospels have. In fact, they show what would go on if someone were making up a story. I would maintain that what you have in the Four Gospels is a very different thing.

Now someone might want to say, "Can't I put something like the Gospel of Thomas in my Bible, alongside the Four Gospels as a witness?" Well, just think how the Gospel of Thomas begins. The Gospel of Thomas begins like this: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down". In other words, this is teaching secret teaching of Jesus. If you want to know the real story about Jesus, you need to come to this gospel and this gospel alone. So you can't put it alongside other gospels, because it claims to be something unique.

Similarly, the Gospel of Judas begins saying, "These are secret sayings". What we have in the Four Gospels, the Four Gospels don't claim to be secret, they claim to be what Jesus taught publicly to crowds, to His twelve disciples, occasionally to just a selection of those disciples, but never just to one person. So I would say the Four Gospels should be treated as public records about Jesus. They have a lot about them which says they should be taken very seriously.

On the other hand, the apocryphal gospels give evidence of the Four Gospels but also give evidence of what would happen if people made up stories and it has nothing like the same evidence in support of it.

Thank you very much.

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