Will the Real Jesus Please Stand up: A Look at the Criteria That Determines Authenticity of Gospel Texts, Part I
Just Because You've Read it...Doesn't Always Make it True
Misunderstanding and misrepresentations abound regarding Jesus of Nazareth. Many individuals have chosen to create their own version of who Jesus was and is. Some believe Jesus is the Messiah; some say he was a prophet; some suggest he was a mere man who married and had children with Mary Magdalene; some say he was crazy and illiterate; a few others say he never even existed. In truth, we cannot create our own version of Jesus anymore than we can create our own version of one another. You are who you are; I am who I am; Jesus is who he was.
Anyone who is honestly interested in knowing the actual biblical Jesus must study the historical documentation about him and must then apply the same criterion (of those documents) that Bible scholars use to determine truths of 1st century Judea.
This article will list some of the criteria that serious scholars use to determine which historical texts are accurate and which are not. Any reasonably intelligent layperson has the ability to better understand all gospel texts, that is, once they commit to embracing what is factual, and by developing a critical eye for knowing what texts are authentic and which are not.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the New Testament was written in Hebrew and that Jesus spoke Aramaic.
The Synoptic Gospels
What most people do not know, or perhaps choose not to appreciate, is that the best historical evidence we have for understanding the true Jesus Christ comes from the New Testament and the Synoptic gospels comprised of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
The Synoptic gospels are highly significant because they all document similar sequences of events relating to the ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, these manuscripts were written in the first century A.D., an extremely important fact given that many followers of Christianity, who were still alive within the time of Jesus' ministry, would have been quite familiar with the teachings of Jesus and would therefore have known whether the authors of the New Testament were documenting the events of Jesus’ life in a truthful manner.
Indeed, devout believers of Jesus would have rejected any writings that may have misrepresented him in any way. The Jewish people of ancient times took the responsibility of documenting history very, very seriously.
Thus, in lieu of the eyewitness factor, it is important to note that the gospel of Mark has been dated at approximately 60-70 A.D., and that the gospels of Matthew and Luke are dated at 80-90 A.D. The actual ministry of Jesus began during the late 20’s to the early 30’s, in the 1st century.
Thus, many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus's life would have been alive after his crucifixion; this fact is crucial! There is no question that 1st century Jewish eyewitnesses would have refuted anything that did not reflect the truth.
Eyewitness Accounts: An Important Criterion
By way of attempting to disprove the relevance of eyewitness criteria, someone asked if I could possibly remember what happened in my life 30 years ago. While I do not even remember what I ate for dinner two weeks ago, had you or I witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of a person we loved, I dare say, we would never forget that day.
If we are going to question an event, which all good scholars do, then we must also determine if a supposition is relevant—or whether it is flawed (as in the question I was asked). We do this by asking critical questions and by delving into the standard, accepted criteria for reading gospel texts---which I will explain shortly.
The average layperson may not know that truly serious scholars have no doubt that the New Testament has the greatest wealth of authentic information regarding the ministry of Jesus Christ, more than any other "gospel" text(s) or ancient writings outside of the New Testament. However, other non-canonical gospels may be useful for exploring the historical Jesus, depending upon the authenticity of the document.
For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves between 1947 and 1956, contain a plethora of accurate information pertaining to the culture and various historical events of 1st century Judea. Therefore, the Dead Sea Scrolls are outstanding documents for authenticating relevant events defined in the canonical gospels. The writings of Josephus, a 1st century historian, are also significant. However, his accounts have been used, at times, by modern scholars to distort the gospels.
Archaeological findings have enhanced the New Testament's credibility. No discovery has ever disproved a biblical reference. Further, archaeology has established that Luke, who wrote about one quarter of the NT, was an especially careful historian.— John McRay, Professor of Archeology
What are Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels?
Canonical gospels are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which comprise a consequential segment of the New Testament, to say the least. Extra-canonical gospels are texts found outside of the New Testament, which may also relay stories about Jesus, though usually inaccurate stories as they were not written in the 1st century. Some examples of extra-canonical writings are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Egyptians, to name a few.
Extra-canonical texts may be useful for gathering some information, but only when read within the confines of proper historical context and with an eye for respecting the "criterion for authenticity" used by Biblical scholars. (*More on 'criterion for authenticity' in later paragraphs) Consequently, one must never be eager to embrace all extra-canonical writings as "gospel truth" primarily because such texts were almost always written in the 2nd Century A.D. and beyond, and are therefore unable to claim the most important criterion---that of eyewitness accounts, unlike the canonical Gospels, written within the same generation of Jesus.
Nonetheless, some scholars, when lecturing, or in their writings, have falsely placed extra-canonical texts into the 1st century without evidence to support their claims. It is highly inappropriate to claim that 2nd or 3rd century texts have the same historical authenticity as the New Testament if historical coherence is to be met. And met it must be if we are to rightly utilize the criterion established by paleography, the study of ancient writing which includes the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts, as well as respecting cultural contexts and the history of scriptoria: information relevant to the historical life and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Criteria of Authenticity
The Criteria of Authenticity is that which is used to extract relevant information from canonical gospels and extra-canonical texts.
1. Historical coherence: Historical narratives of gospels, even non-canonical gospels, should coincide with the narratives of the first century accounts of Jesus' life, which is the time when Jesus ministered, died, and was resurrected.
2. Multiple Attestations: Two or more sources are needed to attest to the sayings and actions of Jesus to assure that a single source did not devise a false narrative—much the way good journalists are required to find multiple sources with same or very similar stories before they can claim the authenticity of their journalistic pieces. It is notable that the New Testament is filled with events about Jesus' life and ministry that coincide quite well with one another.
3. Embarrassment: This allows scholars to know that the writers of the New Testament were faithful to record all the important events pertaining to Jesus’ life, particularly about his ministry, death, and resurrection (upon which the Christian message is based). Some of the events the NT authors recorded were quite embarrassing for them to write, yet they faithfully recorded the facts as they knew them, in the tradition of all Jewish scribes.
For example, it was highly embarrassing for the authors of the New Testament to record that women were the first to find Jesus' tomb empty after his death and that women were the first to hear from an angel of God that Jesus had risen from the dead. The reason for this embarrassment was due to the culture of the day, in which Jewish women were not necessarily held in high regard. However, Jesus gave women the same respect he accorded men. In any event, the apostles would much rather have written that a man had first discovered the empty tomb; however, as that was not the truth, they remained firmly dedicated to recording the facts as they occurred.
4. Semitisms: The sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic languages and 'Philistia' backgrounds, such as: topography, geography, customs, and commerce. All writings must reflect 1st century to be relevant to the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.
5. Coherence/Consistency: Any material that is consistent with all the criteria above can be judged as useful for knowing more about the life of Jesus. Otherwise, a scholarly criterion is not met. (This is considered a "catch all.")
Buyers need beware of material written by current (modern) authors who have no knowledge of historical criterion, or worse yet, who choose to ignore scholarly criteria altogether, being more inclined to write and publish just about anything that suits their fancy and their prejudices. The Dan Brown series comes to mind. Most informed individuals realize that Brown's books contain little if any factual evidence to support his claims and that they should be viewed strictly as entertainment. Dan Brown is a popular author, but he is not a Biblical scholar by any means.
Anyway, strangely enough, and despite accepted standards for establishing the reliability of various historical texts, some well educated individuals with PhD.'s are apparently fine with altering historical dates with zero evidence to support their claims. It is their books which should give one reason to pause. Proper standards remain in place for serious professors/scholars to determine which ancient writings and gospel texts meet the required authenticity test for historical accuracy and which do not. Some scholars adhere to truth-based information while others do not, incredible as this may seem.
The Gospel of Thomas is not authentic; it is an end of 2nd century text.
The Secret Gospel of Mark is a modern hoax. An analysis of the hand-writing indicates forgery.
The Gospel of Peter is dated 4th or 5th century. It describes a talking cross and is considered far-fetched.
There is no evidence that Jesus married and had a child with Mary Magdalene or anyone else.
The conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are rejected by most scholars in North America and Europe.
Jesus was not a Cynic and probably never met one, having been raised in a thoroughly Jewish village.
Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, of the New Testament, are the best sources for understanding the historical Jesus.
The evidence suggests that Jesus was literate; He could read and write.
The Gospel of Mary is dated no earlier than mid-2nd century. It cannot be traced to Mary Magdalene, but the text may reflect church policy & the role of women.
Does a Bible Informed World Still Exist?
Peer review involves subjecting the author's scholarly work and research to the scrutiny of other experts in the same field to check its validity and evaluate its suitability for publication. A peer review helps the publisher decide whether a work should be published.— researchgate.net
A+ Rating....or Not So Much?
In short, it is up to the integrity of the historian to meet these standards when he or she writes a book or publication of any kind. Alarming as it may sound and despite the establishment of peer review, nonsense still gets published. However, all professors know which articles written today have an A rating, and are therefore based on solid research, and which published articles are not properly researched and not highly rated.
Thus, it behooves the layperson, including college educated folks, to realize that scholars are people too. Some scholars have integrity while other's do not. In other words, not all "biblical historians" are entirely honest. The problem with this lack of integrity among some professors (aside from the obvious) is that misleading publications are often wildly influential among the general populace, which is a big problem for your average reader who cares about facts but who may not realize they have been misinformed. Some authors, with a doctorate, are chasing after fame (and monetary grants) and as such, are not opposed to altering a few dates and facts to make that happen.
On the other hand, some scholars have overly rigid criteria. We will explore this matter in Part II of this series.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Yves