A "Critical" Approach To Understanding Gospel Texts
Misunderstanding and misrepresentations abound with regard to Jesus of Nazareth. It would seem that many individuals have chosen to create their own version of who Jesus was and is. Some believe he 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 truly interested in knowing about the real historical Jesus must study the historical documentation about him. They must then apply the same criterion (of those documents) that Bible scholars use to determine truths about the historical Jesus of 1st Century Judea.
This article will list much 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 understanding what is authentic and what is 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 actually comes from the New Testament and in particular, the Synoptic gospels, comprised of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
The reason the Synoptic gospels are important is because they all documented 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. This timing is extremely important as many followers of Christianity, who were still alive within the time of Jesus' ministry, would have been quite familiar with his teachings 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 know that the gospel of Mark has been dated at approximately 60-70 AD, 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. In other words, many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus's life would still have been alive. There is no question that ancient Jewish eyewitnesses would have refuted anything that did not reflect the truth.
Eyewitness Accounts: An Important Criterion
By way of attempting to disprove that eyewitness criteria is not credible, I had someone ask me if I could possibly remember what happened in my life 30 years ago. Well, it is true that I do not even remember what I ate for dinner two weeks ago, but if I had witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of a person I loved, then I dare say, I would never forget it. Ever. Nor have I forgotten that my own son was born 32 years ago. What I am saying is that 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 properly--- which I will explain shortly.
The average layperson does 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---much more so than any other texts outside of the New Testament. However, other non-canonical gospels may also be useful for knowing more about the historical Jesus, depending upon the authenticity of the document. That being said, the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves between 1947 and 1956, contain a plethora of information pertaining to 1st century Judea's culture and historical events which is accurate. Therefore, the Dead Sea Scrolls are highly valuable documents for authenticating the culture and events defined in the canonical gospels.
What are Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels?
Canonical gospels are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which comprise an important part of the New Testament. Extra-canonical gospels are texts found outside of the New Testament which may also relay stories about Jesus, though not necessarily accurate stories. Some examples of extra-canonical writings are: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, 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. Consequently, one must never be too eager to embrace all extra-canonical writings as "gospel truth" for a number of reasons---the most important reason being that such texts were almost always written in the 2nd Century A.D. and beyond, and as such, are unable to claim the most important criterion---that of eyewitness accounts, unlike the canonical Gospels, which were written within the same generation of Jesus.
Nonetheless, some scholars have wrongly attempted to place extra-canonical texts in the 1st century without any actual evidence to support their claims that they were written during that time period. It is highly inappropriate to claim that 2nd century texts have the same historical authenticity as the New Testament (originally documented in the 1st Century), if historical coherence is to be met. And met it must be if we are to rightly utilize the criterion established by paleography, which is the study of ancient writing (the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts) as well as the the cultural context of writing, and the history of scriptoria" (Information that is relevant to the historical life and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth.) For further information, please research Paleography.
Gospel of John
Also, 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 and as such, are more inclined to write and publish just about anything that suits their fancy and their prejudices.
Strangely enough, despite accepted standards for establishing the reliability of various historical texts, some modern scholars are apparently fine with altering dates without any evidence to support their claims. Nevertheless, proper standards remain in place to enable serious professors/scholars to determine which ancient writings and gospel texts meet the required authenticity test and which do not.
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 thus not highly rated. And so it behooves the layperson and even many college educated folks to understand that scholars are people too. Some scholars have integrity while other's do not. In other words, not all "historians" are entirely honest. The problem with this lack of integrity among some professors is that even a misleading publication can be and often is, wildly influential amongst the general populace. Frankly, for the average layperson who is actually interested in historical truths, that can be a big problem.
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 journalist are required find multiple sources, with the same or very similar stories, before they can claim authenticity of their journalistic pieces. It is notable that the New Testament is filled with events about Jesus' ministry, etc. that coincide quite well with one another, from one book to another.
Questions To Ask When Reading Ancient Manuscripts:
- When was this document written?
- Who wrote this document?
- Do the details in this document cohere with other known and trusted sources?
- Was the author of this document in a position to know what really happened and what really was said?
- Are claims in this document supported by archaeological evidence and geographical realities?
3. Embarrassment: This allows Bible scholars to know that the writers of the New Testament were faithful to record all the important events pertaining to Jesus’ life, particularly with regard to Jesus' 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 down; 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 NT 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. That being said, Jesus accorded women the same respect that 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 actually occurred.
4. Semitisms: The sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic languages, and Palestinian backgrounds, such as: topography, geography, customs, and commerce. All writings must reflect 1st Century Palestine 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.")
Critical Thinking: An objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
Self-directed, self-disciplined, and self-corrective thinking which presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. A commitment to overcome ego-centrism.
Not All Logic Is Created Equal
Frankly, questioning the Bible and everything we have believed about our religious or non-religious upbringing is a good and healthy thing to do. It is generally unwise to accept any narrative until one is satisfied with the veracity of said narrative---by having committed to doing some proper research on one's own.
Any Bible historian worth his salt will encourage everyone to question what they have learned about the Bible and to also determine whether one's current beliefs coincide with basic standards for critical thinking, along with the study needed to understand what is authentic.
Unfortunately, and all too often, we blindly accept what may sound logical to our untrained minds or what coincides with our personal prejudices. Thus, we willingly accept false information, whether we were raised as Mormons, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, or any other religion or non-religion.
The Problem With Overly-Rigid Criteria
The other difficulty that arises with some historians is the tendency to be overly rigid in their expectations of canonical gospels. For example, if descriptions (in the canonical gospels) vary somewhat with one another, then some historians or seekers are all too ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Such people have no tolerance for any form of "contradiction" in the Bible and therefore choose not to recognize any given Biblical narrative, even though the Synoptic gospels have consistently recognized the significant events that occurred in the life of Jesus, and furthermore, that the meaning behind these events remains intact.
For example, the New Testament states that Jesus was hung on the cross between two thieves. Mark 15:32 indicates that both thieves mocked Jesus: "...and they that were crucified with him, reviled him." On the other hand, Luke 23:39 speaks of only one thief who mocked Jesus, while the other thief defended Jesus...."But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God seeing that thou are in the same condemnation, and we justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing amiss." (KJV; Luke 40-41)
Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water
The point is that both gospels recognize the event of the crucifixion, though one gospel notes that two thieves hanging on their crosses mocked Jesus, while another gospel only refers to one thief who mocked Jesus. The accounts of the thieves contain a contradiction, yet the event of the actual crucifixion is not contradicted. Must we then throw out the entire gospels of Mark and Luke because of the differing summaries about the thieves? The point here is that one must be cautious of "missing the forest for the trees."
Some scholars, like Professor Bart Ehrman, believe that any inconsistency is unacceptable and therefore proves the "unreliability" of the New Testament, whereas other scholars believe this inconsistency does not diminish the importance of the event, namely---the crucifixion. Lay readers and scholars alike must make a determination in their minds about what really matters. I believe it is important to look at the totality of the Bible as well as arguments for and against texts, all the while taking scholarly criterion into account before coming to a determination about what one believes is most important.
Do You Believe That the New Testament Provides the Best Evidence For the Life of Jesus Christ?
In fact, reading the New Testament with the idea that the Bible must contain no contradictions whatsoever is not critical thinking at its best. Rather, it is an excuse to diffuse critical thinking by masking one's rigid thinking under the guise of intellectualism. That being said, I do not believe Professor Ehrman's intent in writing his popular book, Misquoting Jesus, was to ignore standard criteria. Rather, his criteria may be overly rigid.
We have all been witness to those who are unyielding attitudes. Are such attitudes more in line with the tenets of rigid fundamentalism, which takes all gospel texts quite literally whether the text was meant in a literal way or not and which may ignore historical contexts? Ironically, both Christians and hard-line atheists can be inflexible and quite fundamentalist about their beliefs and arguments. Such inflexibility is not critical thinking; it is actually a form of deception that falsely favors one's prejudicial belief system over another's. To base anything strictly upon one's prejudices is improper----not to mention, such thinking borders on solipsism---the view that the self is all that can be known to exist.
Truth be told, it is not my intent to convert anyone to Christianity, agnosticism, or anything else. Rather, my goal is to help individuals to refrain from accepting any nonsensical information that comes along with regard to who Jesus Christ is, what he said, and how he conducted his ministry. It is also the goal of this article to remind readers and seekers to challenge themselves to know more about the relevant criteria that is needed in studying ancient historical texts, and also, to always observe historical context in an effort to uncover truths.
It is my hope that no matter what anyone chooses to believe, that we may also decide to dignify the rights of others to speak of their faith or lack thereof without suppressing the other in any way and with respectfulness for freedom of speech and freedom of religion.