Wednesday 13 January 2010

Are the gospels reliable? A letter to a young inquirer

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

Dear N.,

Very good to hear from you with your interesting dreams and questions. I think your questions represent those that many have today. I don't know if I can answer them to your satisfaction, but here is how I look at them myself.

You write: "I don't think there is a good reason to believe in Jesus as the Christ because the accounts of him are historically non-convincing for two reasons (a) these are not his accounts but accounts of him from flawed men..."

This comment seems to assume that we cannot believe in Jesus without "good reasons" and without evidence that is "historically reliable". It also seems to assume that we would be better off with writings directly from Jesus himself rather than from his followers, who were flawed like the rest of us. I can see that this line of thinking seems reasonable. I don't think it is sufficient, however.

First, there is the question of what it would be "reasonable" for someone to believe. Although good reasons can actually be given of the kind you seem to be seeking (more on that in a moment), I don't think any such reasons, by themselves, would ever be enough for someone to have faith in Christ. This is a very important point to which I will need to return, because it has to do with the nature of faith. Here I am commenting somewhat more on the nature of reason. Even the best of reasons, I am saying, would be insufficient. That is because believing in Christ is not just the same as believing that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Although there is certainly an element of historical fact at stake in Christian belief, knowledge of historical facts is knowledge of a particular kind. It never gets us beyond the weighing of probabilities. Christian belief does not fall into that category. It does not finally come down to probability assessments.

Even if we had documents written by Jesus himself, we would still need to go well beyond mere historical "probabilities" if we were to commit our lives to him as our Lord and Savior, in life and in death, which is what the gospel says is required of us. (And required of us unconditionally.)

Second, at the level of historical probabilities, I think the Christian faith has to meet a minimal standard, but only a minimal standard. Although it involves historical elements, faith also involves elements that do not fit neatly into the category of "history". The historical aspects are not unimportant, however.

The minimal standard that needs to be met is that these historical aspects or (often implicit) historical claims cannot be shown to have been decisively disproved. If it could be shown, for example, that Jesus did not die on a cross but instead in an old age home in Palestine or that his body still lies a-mouldering in the tomb, I think that would count as decisive disproof. I think it is reasonable to conclude, however, that attempts of this kind, which over the last 250 years have been legion, have not been successful.

Christ's resurrection could theoretically be disproved by historical evidence, but it could not be proven on historical grounds alone, because, in the nature of the case, it confronts us with something more than a merely historical claim — something much more terrifying and radical.

In the end I think the historical evidence remains ambiguous and inconclusive, taken as a whole. There is not a lot of data to go on, which allows the evidence to be read either positively or negatively. Positively, certain lines of plausibility can be established for the "factual" claims of the gospel on historical grounds, but negatively, on the other hand, these lines of reasoning are always open to challenge and doubt. There is, again, not enough evidence to work with one way or the other that would allow us to come to unshakable historical conclusions.

Nevertheless, a strong historical case can indeed be made in favor of Christ's resurrection, for example, but not one that I think is beyond "reasonable" doubt. Reason, in any case, reaches its categorical limit here. Affirming or denying Christ's resurrection — or better, affirming or denying the Risen Christ — is well beyond the competency of mere reason.

Let me mention two recent scholarly works, one by Richard Bauckham, the other by N. T. Wright. In his very intriguing book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008, 540 pp.), Bauckham makes a strong case for the general reliability of the gospels. I don't think the case is as iron-clad as he does, but I do regard it as impressive. Bauckham presents a very strong and learned argument that, contrary to much modern scholarship, the gospels did not arise very long after the fact.

N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) is an even more massive tome (750 pp.). Every NT passage on Christ's resurrection is analyzed scrupulously for its historical reliability. I think Wright finally overstates his case, even more so than Bauckham does his. Nevertheless, again, I think that even with a more nuanced assessment of his findings, this is a formidable achievement.

A more popular but still scholarly work would be Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (2008) by Craig A. Evans (290 pp.). I again have the same kinds of reservations. In other words, I don't reject his arguments out of hand but I take them with a grain of salt. They are impressive but inconclusive, though they show why the minimal standard that I set forth earlier has actually been met, and more than met. An older work that still holds up fairly well, I think, would be F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (85 pp.). This well-written little book, which first appeared around 1960, has recently been reissued. I read it as an undergraduate.

The point is not that works like these have knock-down arguments. They don't. Knock-down arguments in this world are rare. The point is rather that the historical claims of the gospel are susceptible to a respectable defense. Again, however, I think that in the end these kinds of considerations are only secondary, and are at best merely preliminary.

You also write: "Furthermore (b) these stories are not necessarily trustworthy. Did they remember wrong? Were they even there? Even if they remembered right (how could they after so long?) and were actually there, did they misinterpret Jesus (of course, we know from their own accounts that they consistently did)."

What I am trying to suggest is that everything finally depends on what kind of documents the gospels and other NT writings are. They are not really historical reports. They do not fall into the category of report but rather into the category of witness. They all present themselves, in various ways, as witnesses to the Risen Christ. The picture of Jesus in the gospels, for example, represents an overlay of the Risen Christ upon the "historical" Jesus, because the point is that the historical Jesus and the Risen Christ are finally one and the same.

The Christian faith is far more a matter of radical conversion than it is of rational persuasion. The claim that a marginal Jew who was put to death on a cross should have been raised from the dead so that he now reigns as Lord and Savior is never going to be plausible to rational or evidential considerations. It is always going to be foolishness, as Paul himself confessed: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor. 1:22-25).

The NT cannot be read intelligently unless it is read as a spiritual book, as opposed to a merely historical document. The truth to which it bears witness necessarily transcends every ordinary rational mode of perception. Unless the doors of perception are opened, and we begin thinking in a whole new framework, it will never make any sense.

It is finally not we who read the NT, but the NT that reads us. It calls us and our detached role as would-be authoritative, evidence-weighing spectators radically into question. That is why it is so dangerous. Many of those original "unreliable" witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, like Peter and Paul, went to their brutal deaths as martyrs. "When Christ calls a man," wrote Bonhoeffer, "he bids him come and die."

No one who is not willing to take this risk should venture to read the NT. But many of those who have turned to it spiritually have found, throughout the centuries, that they end up saying with Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn. 6:68). I suggest that you might want to read the opening chapters in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sweet dreams,


Tony Hunt said...

One funny bit in there is that I find the opposite to be the case between Bauckham and Wright. Wright overstates the utter dichotomy between "Greek" and "Jewish" visions of Resurrection, but his exegesis is massively convincing, whereas Bauckham seems to overstate his case historically speaking.

But then again that's only my opinion.

Anyul said...

Great article, I agree with most of it, but there is something that see that is missing in this kind of apologetics writing.

You say The picture of Jesus in the gospels, for example, represents an overlay of the Risen Christ upon the "historical" Jesus, because the point is that the historical Jesus and the Risen Christ are finally one and the same., and then I ask: how is that? can someone explain me how this two apparently contradictory depictions of Jesus, on one side, a Cosmical and preexisntent Son of God who comes and dies for all human sins, and in the other hand, an earthling man from a poor family murdered by the Roman Empire to avoid any subversive movement from de Jews? I know this is a matter of Christology and the Hypostatic union, but I find some the explanation implausibles.

Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

If this essay had been submitted to the philosophy 101 class in Columbia University in 1957 it would have quite rightly been torn to shreds---all of it.

Columbia was then a very tough and demanding philosophy school where one actually did philosophy as a potentially life changing exercise and where one was always relentlessly challenged to justify or prove any statement one wished to make. It was a place where one was taught and encouraged to use Critical Intelligence

Anonymous said...

To anonymous,

That is precisely why this piece is not philosophy. It is critical of critical philospophy and historical criticism for not being critical enough of their own sceptical presuppositions to "justify or prove any statement one wished." The attitude eluded to here is rather one of openness and receptivity to see the truth to which the Gospel writers themselves testify. It is not to gain control or domination over the text through one's use of critical reason. It is rather to be controlled by the subject matter itself to which the Gospel tesitifies.

Dave W. said...

Thanks for posting this Ben.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate Prof. Hunsinger's response and I understand that he may have intentionally avoided overwhelming the questioner. Still, I think the scholarly works he references are too conservative in their arguments and conclusions regarding the gospels. I'm afraid that the conservatism of these works will be unconvicing for a genuinely skeptical questioner, esp. as they often beg certain questions. To be sure, Hunsinger hints at this observation in his comments. The recent works by Dale C. Allison are better, in my judgment, both his larger "Resurrecting Jesus" and the much smaller, more accessible "The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus." Here's the Amazon link to the latter.

Mike Gibson said...

Well said. I think the final three paragraphs are absolutely vital and articulate the crux of the matter with clarity and precision. Prof. Hunsinger, here, states quite neatly what thinkers like Athanasius, Calvin, Barth and Torrance were all about. Specifically, our persons and our very frames of mind are bound with and confronted by the personal reality of Jesus Christ that is the subject of the NT's witness.

Anonymous said...

I'd likewise support Allison over more conservative scholars like Wright. His works are great in that the provide a scholarly alternative to the de-eschatologized Jesus of Crossan and Borg

Nate said...

I found Allison sort of depressing. It seemed like he was playing the part of an agnostic trying to convince his reader he still believed. The Gospels, realiable or unrealiable it didn't matter because he believes. Why? I understand that the Gospels are written after Jesus' resurrection, but if the Gospels don't present and honest picture or Jesus, what's the point.

SR said...

I don't know if this is the appropriate place, but I would like to pose the following theological question: what difference, in terms of salvation, does it make to believe in the Resurrection? Let me expand.

Suppose there are two people, A and B, who both believe in eternal life, that Jesus is, after his death, a real Presence and guide for all, who both take to heart the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, although both understanding themselves as sinners, not really capable of living up to its demanding standard, but both having faith in ultimately entering some mysterious blessed state called the Kingdom of God,.... However, A also believes in the Resurrection (that the tomb was empty), while B doesn't care about it, that Jesus' body probably decayed away like any other.

In other words, outwardly and inwardly B appears to be just as much a Christian as A, but B sees no need to believe in the Resurrection story. He doesn't necessarily deny it, just doesn't see its relevance to salvation. What does one say to B?

Anonymous said...

Kierkegaard has a similar argument, but one that goes much deeper in his Fragments and Postscript. Hunsinger's response is like the first part of that argument. From the standpoint of "certainty" we are left with a stalemate, so perhaps we ought to examine the kind of confidence that the Bible calls faith instead, since "death is a good dancing partner".

I suppose Malcolm Muggeridge would be an example of a B Christian? I recall reading an essay where he says that faith (in his definition) would continue to be possible if the bones of Jesus were found at some point in the future.

Erin said...

Thanks, prof. Hunsinger.
In addition to the thoughtful theological reflection to be found here, posts like this one are invaluable as pictures of theology put in to play in the midst of real relationships.

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't have either the time or the inclination to become involved in a controversy in this thread. However: I believe that Prof. Hunsinger _gravely_ underestimates the force of the historical case for Christianity in his repeated deprecating statements about it and particularly when he says, "In the end I think the historical evidence remains ambiguous and inconclusive, taken as a whole." I am sure that that is his honest opinion. I just think that he is mistaken, and mistaken in a way that could be potentially damaging to N. and others with similar questions. (N., of course, may be fictional.)

If you are someone like N. and are genuinely interested in the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Internet infidel trolls need not follow up on this), and if you are willing to take the trouble to find my e-mail address, feel free to make contact with me. My e-mail address can be found here:

kim fabricius said...

Professor Hunsinger is not mistaken (nice post, George). As Rowan Williams also observes: "As far as the historical question goes, it is clear that the scholarly analysis of the resurrection narratives has not yielded a single compelling resolution to the numerous difficulties."

That's the situation. We have sufficient but not conclusive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. But then if (as Barth says) "resurrection is a paraphrase of the word 'God'", then the last thing we should expect is historical-critical closure. Indeed if we had it, we'd be worshipping an idol.

One of Freedom said...

Internet infidel trolls???

Thanks for posting this Ben.

Anonymous said...

"In other words, outwardly and inwardly B appears to be just as much a Christian as A, but B sees no need to believe in the Resurrection story. He doesn't necessarily deny it, just doesn't see its relevance to salvation. What does one say to B?"

Jesus is either alive or dead. If he's dead, then talk of his "presence" today is just sentimental mumbo-jumbo.

Unknown said...

Maybe this is irrelevant but Anyul Rivas's comment nr. the top got passed over. I think he raises an interesting point. Faith and the what God was up to in Christ necessarily transcends the historical dimension. Adam Nigh has a recent posting on Torrance and the resurrection, in his blog, and here Torrance is helpful I feel on the God time dimension.

TomH said...

I don't think that the gospel accounts were intended to be anything other than historical documents of the judicial "bench notes" sub-genre.

I think that it's irresponsible and incompetent to ignore the epistemological perspective of the early church--which essentially took its epistemology of phenomena straight from Judaism. The notion of questioning witnesses by a tribunal was foremost in the jewish mind when questions of phenomena were at stake--especially religious phenomena. When Christ called the apostles his witnesses, he didn't mean that they were supposed to talk about their spiritual experience, but only of "what they had seen and heard." This was the phrase attributed to the apostles in Acts when going before the Sanhedrin and the phrase Jesus used when speaking to the witnesses sent by John the Baptist when John sent messengers to Jesus and was asking whether Jesus was the Christ.

Anonymous said...

This post was spot on, and reminded me of a quote from Hauerwas: “It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know the ‘real Jesus.’ I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples’ response. The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems they cannot know the real Jesus, in fact is a theological necessity. For the ‘real Jesus’ did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age” (“Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom, 118, The Hauerwas Reader).

TomH said...

If you don't understand the epistemic perspective of the early church, you'll make major mistakes reading the New Testament, including mistaking the literary genres, which misreading of the New Testament has basically been ongoing for about 1900 years.

J said...

Unless the doors of perception are opened, and we begin thinking in a whole new framework, it will never make any sense.

Yes, Father, the Doors of Perception. The Gospel according to Blake, Aldous Huxley, and...the Doors. Break on through to the...otha side, for Jeezuss

Actually, a somewhat insightful essay, F & T.

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