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Gospel truth? History and the writing of the New Testament

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

This Sunday, millions around the world will gather to celebrate Easter. They will listen to historical documents written almost two thousand years ago, purporting to describe the last hours, death, and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a religious teacher from first-century Palestine. Those events, and the documents which supposedly describe them, have had an unsurpassed impact on world history. Yet for many in modern society, the first Easter seems clouded in mystery and suspicion. Among the writings known as the New Testament, we have four lives of Jesus, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but what are we to make of them? What is a ‘Gospel’? Why and how were they written? What do they claim to be?

These questions have exercised scholars for decades (if not centuries), and the twists and turns of the debate are themselves a fascinating story. For much of the twentieth-century, the dominant view was that these Gospel narratives were little more than folk-tales, conjured up in the churches dotted around the Mediterranean years after and miles away from the events they claimed to describe. The Gospels were a new kind of semi-mythical writing, part-story, part-sermon. Any memories or experiences of the ‘historical Jesus’ which they preserved were adapted to the beliefs of communities in which they were written. The Gospel writers could not, in this view, be considered as historians but writers of myth.

Saint_Matthew2Unlike myth, however, the Gospel writers very clearly rooted their narratives in specific times and places, which even sceptical scholars would place only a few decades before. Luke’s Gospel, for example, mentioned the reigns of the relevant Roman Emperors to orientate his readers (Lk. 2.1, 3.1, c.f. Acts 11.28). Mark carefully notes the hours of Jesus’ death (Mk. 15.25). All four Gospels describe the physical settings of Jesus’ actions, complete with places’ local names. These and countless other small details suggest that the Gospels were claiming to be far more than simply legends. Towards the close of the twentieth-century, indeed, more scholars were noticing the similarities between the Gospels and other ancient histories and biographies.

Most recently, there has been growing interest in how both ancient historians and the Gospels writers spoke of eyewitness testimony. As with modern historians, eyewitnesses were an important source of authority in writing history. Herodotus (c.484-425BC), the so-called ‘father of history’ for Greeks and Romans, noted at various points where he had used eyewitnesses, and sometimes named them If a historian had lived through the events he described, even better. Thucydides (c.460-400BC), claimed that ‘I lived through the whole war, being of an age to form judgements, and followed it with close attention, so as to acquire accurate information’ (History, 5.26.5). This did not guarantee accuracy, but it did provide authority because it connected the reader, via the text, to the events described. Herodotus and Thucydides established the standards of history which prevailed in the first-century A.D., and those standards demanded that eyewitnesses and their testimony were integral to proper history writing.

It is significant, therefore, that the Gospel writers made similar claims. Luke began his Gospel claiming to have written his ‘orderly account’ ‘just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us’ to write (Lk. 1.1-4). John, in his account of the spearing of Jesus at the crucifixion, mentioned that ‘he who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth’ (Jn. 19.35). The Gospel writers based their claims to authority on the same kind of eyewitness testimony that their Greek and Roman counterparts did. This was but one part of a wider attempt to position themselves as authoritative historians of recent events.

It is often forgotten that the writing of the New Testament took place among a relatively small group of people only a few decades after the events they claimed to describe. As a result, the naming of specific people who observed specific events was part of how early Christians staked their historical claims. Mark, for example, mentioned ‘Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mk. 15.21), whose sons seem to have been known to his original audience and who thus provided a connection to the events Mark described. Even those who did not write history, such as the apostle Paul, shared the language of historical testimony. Although Paul had not known Jesus prior to his crucifixion, he claimed to have seen the risen Jesus himself (1 Cor 15.8, Gal 1.16), adding himself to the list of witnesses to the resurrection. He also claimed to have received the tradition related by Jesus’ first disciples (1 Cor. 15.3, Gal. 1.18-19).  Since these people were still alive, the New Testament writers could appeal to their authority in consolidating the growing body of testimony about their master’s life and the claims which it made.

Using the language of history and testimony did not necessarily mean that such claims were true. Indeed, these claims remain hotly debated almost two thousand years later. Nonetheless, whatever we make of those claims and their relevance to today, Easter was and remains a historical claim and must be judged on that basis.

References:

All Bible quotations from English Standard Version, from www.biblegateway.com.
Herodotus, Histories, ed. and trans. A.D. Godley, 4 vols (Cambridge, M.A., 1920-25).
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, ed. and trans. C.F. Smith, 4 vols (Cambridge, M.A., 1919-23)

Further reading:

The literature on this subject is mind-bogglingly vast. This post has primarily used the following…
Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography Cambridge, 1995).
Samuel Byrskog, Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel tradition in the context of ancient oral history (Tübingen, 2000).
Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2002).
Martin Hengel, ‘Eye-witness memory and the writing of the Gospels’, M. Bockmuehl & D.A. Hagner (eds), The Written Gospel (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 70-96.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, M.I., 2006).

Images: 
One the oldest fragments of the New Testament, John Rylands library papyrus P52 recto, of John 18:31–33, 18:37–38 (Public domian via Wikimedia commons): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_Library_Papyrus_P52#/media/File:P52_recto.jpg.
St Matthew the Evangelist from a ninth-century Bible produced in northern Europe (Public domain via Wikimedia commons): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Saint_Matthew2.jpg.

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