(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)
Christianity is, above all else, a story. We don’t see God showing up in real life. Jesus doesn’t go to church on Sunday. 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. The heart of the Gospel is the story of the Gospel, and if there are any doubts about the story, then Christianity itself is in danger of being reduced to a pleasant (or not-so-pleasant) myth.
Starting in Chapter 8, William Lane Craig takes on the task of trying to make the Gospel sound like history. It’s not an easy task, but Craig has thousands of years of pro-Christian scholarship to call on, as well as an equal or greater volume of traditional apologetics. 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. The deck is stacked in Craig’s favor, and now he’s ready to deal out the cards.
He begins by suggesting that the Gospel is helped, rather than hindered, by modern scholarship. Speaking of questions like “How do we know that what the apostles wrote was accurate?” and “How do we know they didn’t embellish things, or report hearsay, or just make things up?” he writes:
Well, up until the modern era these sorts of questions were basically unanswerable. But with the rise of textual criticism and the modern study of history, historians began to develop the tools to unlock these questions. Today Jesus is no longer just a figure in a stained-glass window, but a real, flesh-and-blood person of history, just like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, whose life can be investigated by the standard methods of history.
That’s not necessarily a good thing, at least for Christian apologists! And in fact, Craig is already off the mark just a bit, because we do have a way to judge whether or not the stories of men are reliable stories. 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.
Craig prefers to take a more optimistic view, however. In his opening paragraphs, he boasts:
Little did I realize [in the 1970’s] that a veritable revolution in New Testament scholarship was transpiring that would soon reverse such skepticism and establish the gospels as historically credible sources for the life and claims of Jesus. Radical critics will get a free pass from the press today for their sensational assertions, but they are being increasingly marginalized within the academy, as scholarship has come to a new appreciation of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents.
Take that, skeptics! Now to be fair, I think Craig does have a partial point. Some critics have gone too far in suggesting that Jesus himself never existed. That strikes me as a silly notion: obviously somebody had to originally invent this stuff at some point, and why would that man’s name be any less likely to be “Jesus”? (Cf. today’s post at Alethian Worldview.) The problem for Christianity is not proving that there once was a religious figure whose name was Jesus, the problem is the things men claim about him.
Getting back to the historical question of the Gospel’s accuracy, then, Craig begins by considering all the sources we have for information about Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth is referred to in a range of ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament, including Christian, Roman, and Jewish sources…
The most important of these historical sources have been collected into the New Testament.
Oops, there’s Craig’s bias showing through. 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 church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, to include in the New Testament and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes. So from the very nature of the case, the best historical sources were included in the New Testament.
And how do we know that the bishops chose only the good books, and rejected only the fakes? Well, because they told us so themselves. 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.
But we should just take their word for it anyway. They claim to have picked all the right books and to have rejected all the “fakes,” and therefore their testimony establishes the New Testament as the most reliable historical evidence we have about the life of Jesus. That’s what Craig would have us believe anyway, though he more or less glosses over that part. He barely mentions this as a given, and then immediately blows the dog whistle of “evil liberal scholarship.”
People who insist on evidence taken only from writings outside the New Testament don’t understand what they’re asking us to do. They’re demanding that we ignore the earliest, primary sources about Jesus in favor of sources that are later, secondary, and less reliable, which is just crazy as historical methodology.
This is important because all of the radical reconstructions of the historical Jesus in the news today are based on later writings outside the New Testament, in particular the so-called apocryphal gospels…[which] began to appear in the second half of the second century after Christ. Revisionists claim that these extrabiblical writings are the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.
Notice the prejudice: these aren’t historians, they’re “revisionists” and “radicals” who insist on ignoring primary sources in favor of a “crazy” methodology. There’s no mention of the unique problems that arise when you try to rediscover history after the thorough and systematic destruction of all evidence outside the officially-sanctioned narrative. There’s no hint that we might be able to uncover traces of earlier histories through an examination of the few non-canonical works that did survive, no mention of the possibility that these later works might be based on earlier manuscripts that have since been (*ahem*) “lost.”
Craig spends several paragraphs painting critical scholars as dishonest, agenda-driven revisionists trying to “dupe” you into rejecting the New Testament. Despite his glowing endorsement of New Testament scholarship at the beginning of the chapter, he doesn’t think much of scholars who fail to restrict themselves to the official accounts. There have been those in the skeptical community who have defended Craig and argued that he is not dishonest at heart, just very committed to his beliefs. Craig himself makes no such allowances for New Testament critics, though. They’re all a bunch of con men out to make a buck at the expense of your immortal soul.
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.
Notice, too, the false dichotomy Craig presents: either the New Testament is reliable, or it is unreliable. Not, “is the NT biased or unbiased?”—obviously it’s heavily biased, and that means we have to consider the reliability of the Bible in the context of the writers’ agenda. Where historical facts are irrelevant to their goal of promoting Christianity, we have no reason to assume the text is unreliable. When it comes to the unique claims that they appeal to as proof of their faith, though, a healthy skepticism is warranted. Indeed, under the circumstances it would be sheer gullibility to assume that their accounts, in such cases, were objective, unbiased, and accurate.
Craig, however, wants to make it an all-or-nothing, one-assumption-fits-all dichotomy, and he offers five arguments why we should assume that the gospels are accurate until proven otherwise.
- There was insufficient time for legendary influences to erase the core historical facts.
- The gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary “urban legends.”
- The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable.
- There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision.
- The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.
Notice that none of these 5 excuses actually address the problem of bias in the gospels, and in fact, many of them actually seem likely to maximize the effectiveness of the bias. Next week, we’ll look at points 1 and 5, since Craig picks these two to elaborate on, so in the meantime, let’s just look at the middle three.
Craig denies that the gospels are analogous to modern urban legends, on the grounds that urban legends “rarely concern actual historical individuals and are thus not like the gospel narratives.” In other words, by carefully selecting certain specific characteristics about urban legends and the gospels, he can think of one way in which the gospels are not like urban legends. That’s not the same as proving that the two are never alike, however. Elvis Presley was a real person. Can you think of any urban legends about him? What were the names of the two disciples who allegedly walked to Emmaus with Jesus, without recognizing him, shortly after his death?
But let’s not get distracted here. The identity of the characters is irrelevant; the real significance of urban legends is the psychosocial mechanism that allows such legends to arise and become widespread. Why do so many people believe that Obama was born in Kenya? Why do people believe that vaccines cause autism? The important thing is that the success of the legend is proportional to how sensational it is and how willingly people believe it. That’s a serious issue for the Gospel, which is a sensational story that people are eager to believe, and is thus very similar to urban legends.
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. Point 3 might explain, for example, why one gospel has Mary meeting a risen Jesus in the cemetery, while another has her telling the disciples she doesn’t know what happened to his body. Later traditions faithfully pass on the contradiction between the two gospel stories, but the stories themselves developed in an unreliable way that allowed contradictions to arise in the first place.
Point 4, that the apostles or eyewitnesses resisted all attempts to embellish the gospel, is pure fantasy. There is no evidence of the apostles ever attempting to shut down any claims or arguments that made the Gospel look better, and in fact there is some evidence to the contrary, like the blind man Jesus allegedly healed outside Jericho, who later became two blind men. Craig is simply assuming that believers would never embellish or allow others to embellish the facts, but when we look at real Christians in the real world, we see that this is not the case.
In the end, Craig himself is a demonstration of why we should not naively assume that everything in the Bible is necessarily true. Believers do not give us unbiased accuracy in their reporting. Craig omits important and relevant information about the historical issues involved, he slanders NT critics as con men and revisionists, he distorts the facts and distracts us with irrelevancies. And he does it because it’s to his advantage to do so—the Gospel is the kind of story that benefits more from a biased and distorted look at history than from a balanced and impartial consideration of the evidence.
That in itself tells us all we really need to know.