POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Gospels - A Reliable and Biased Testimony to an Unparalleled Life

Continued from The Books of the New Testament

Skeptics throughout the ages have asked whether the gospels are to be trusted because they were written by biased people, the followers of Jesus himself.  They surely must have had a skewed point of view as to who this Jesus is.  After all, you cannot trust someone's biggest fans to give an objective account of someone's life...can you?  Recently this skepticism has been found unwarranted for a couple reasons.  First, we know that eyewitness accounts are always the most reliable when looking at events that we ourselves did not observe.  If the gospels demonstrate themselves to be the testimony of eyewitnesses they are then the most trustworthy views of Jesus we possess.  Second, the claim that someone is unable to correctly convey a story because they are "biased" is highly unwarranted.  We will look at each of these issues.

Eyewitness Testimony in the New Testament

When asking the question "What happened with this Jesus guy?" the first persons we should ask are those who walked with him, talked with him and lived their lives with him.  Or as 2 Peter 1:16 rightly records, those who were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  This requires us to look at the claims of the gospels to be just that - a written record of eyewitness testimony.  This was a view taken for granted for years until the advent of critical scholarship in the 19th century where the origin and source of all the gospel writings was brought into question.  Revisionist historians and liberal New Testament scholars began to claim the gospels were 3rd or 4th century compilations of Christian communities which did not reflect anything close to eyewitness testimony. 

However, there has been much movement in New Testament studies over the last several decades which has ruled out the revisionist ideas of liberal theology.  The late 3rd and 4th century dates have been utterly repudiated and we have been able to date all the gospels conclusively to the first century.  This has been due to amazing archaeological discoveries such as a fragment of John's gospel dating to around 125 AD.  Additionally, recent scholarship has shown that there are very good reasons to understand the gospels as testimony.  In 2006 Scottish Richard Bauckham published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony which makes a strong case for our understanding the gospels as containing the testimony of those who knew the life and teaching of Jesus directly.  More and more scholars are coming to the position which the church has always held.  The gospels are the most reliable portrait of the life and teaching of Jesus because they contain the accounts of the people who were there.  But where these people just Jesus fan boys, too biased to be trusted?  Good question.

Bias is not Always Bad 

The question of bias is important, after all, the gospel writers did not leave us with a simple narrative that records nothing more than rote historical facts.  No, they were convinced of the truth of Jesus' teaching and their account of history contains the teaching of theology about Jesus as well as historical data.  Yes, there are towns, rulers, times and places mentioned, but also teaching as to the identity of Jesus and his mission from God.  But does this one sided account, that of Jesus' followers, disqualify their testimony as being valid?  In fact I will argue that if you want to know something about something or someone, you are better off asking people who are passionately committed to the story he shares.  A few examples can help us see that Bias is not always bad.

One example comes from the world of technology and through a simple question.   If you desire to know about the ins and outs of Macintosh computers, would you ask someone has never touched a Mac to be your teacher?  Of course not...who would you ask?  You probably would ask one of those MacIdolaters who are loyal subjects of the cult of Steve Jobs.  You know that crazy Apple guy who has to put down Windows every time the subject arises.  You know the guy who is flossing[1] his iPhone for all to see.  You may be that guy.  My point is this.  The people from whom you will get the best information about Macs are probably the ones who are the most biased; the ones who are passionate about their elite computers.  In like manner, NASCAR fans should be consulted on the intricacies of Stock car racing, indie rockers should be the ones you talk to about what is happening in the music scene and his original followers are the ones we should consult about Jesus Christ.   

One final example of a more serious kind should be mentioned.  To exclude a person who was involved with an event, who passionately cares that the story be told, as being a reliable witness would be quite odd indeed.  This sort of reasoning would rule out the accounts of Jewish historians of the Holocaust.  They are most interested as they were the ones most closely involved with this horrific course of events.  We would not think of discounting someone's testimony because they are "biased" against the Nazi's because their family went through the Holocaust.  No, rather we trust them as they were the closest people to the events and care most passionately about conveying and passing on this history.[2] 

Until someone is shown to be an unreliable witness we ought to take their word for something until they are shown to be not trustworthy.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant rightly showed some time ago that an assumption that all people are lying all the time is self-refuting.  We should assume truth telling unless we have good reason to think that someone is not telling the truth.[3]  If we find that someone is in their right mind and capable to tell the truth, is willing to do so, his words are recorded and preserved with integrity and his testimony is validated by other witnesses, we should trust the words of that person.[4]  It seems that this is precisely the sort of reality that we find in the writers of the gospels. 

It was their intention to tell the truth

  • Most of them were religious Jews who thought that intentional falsification (lying) was a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments.  Lying was not a virtue in their community.  This does not mean there were not religious Jews who were liars at the time, but it was not a virtue extolled in the community.
  • The New Testament writers were concerned with "delivering" the teaching of Jesus and the gospel to the next generation in their writing.  The Apostle Paul specifically says that he delivered or passed on to the Corinthian church the gospel.  This gospel was considered by the early Christians as a matter "of first importance." See 1 Corinthians 15:1-3.  There is good evidence that they believed they were passing on what they saw as a holy tradition through their writings.[5]

They were able to tell the truth

  • They were a culture steeped in a tradition of oral teaching and memorization.  In fact, scholars have shown that ancient peoples could memorize massive amounts of information, with an important focus on maintaining the very words of their teachers.[6]
  • If they experienced any external pressure it was against the preaching of their message. They gained nothing in the way of position, power and possessions for faithfully telling the Jesus story.  To the contrary most of them were killed for it.  

 Their Words Preserved Accurately

  • It is beyond the scope of this paper but there is good textual evidence that we have the New Testament documents today in a form that is extremely close to the original manuscripts.  This is non controversial.  Most scholars agree that the current Greek texts of the New Testament are very accurate.  To put it simply, we have pretty much what was written.  Interesting enough, one of the few controversial passages, Mark 16:9-20, is in the gospel of Mark.
  • Additionally, there was very little time between the actual events of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.  The less time that passes the less likely legendary development occurs.  The gospels were all finished by around 90AD with Mark and Matthew likely within just a few decades of the resurrection of Jesus.  In the period in which the gospels were written down many eyewitnesses of the events would have still been alive.  As Richard Bauckham states, "The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount.  Mark's gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put in writing"[7]

They are Corroborated/Validated by Others

  • If an author shows that he tells the truth on matters that are verifiable externally, he is thought to be a reliable witness.  The New Testament writers note at least thirty historically confirmed people in their works. The gospels in general and the passion narrative in particular find corroboration in several ancient sources outside of the New Testament.[8]  In addition, we find quotations at length from the gospels in the sermons and writings of the early church fathers.
  • When the gospels are examined, they show a strong historicity which is only doubted when a bias against the supernatural is brought to bear.  Many skeptics have written off the testimony of the gospels because they were written down by men who believed in God, who record the occurrence of the miraculous and the resurrection of an incarnate Savior God.  Yet such bias against the supernatural is just the work of a closed mind.  Someone who says - I cannot believe the words of the New Testament because I don't believe in God or miracles - is already closed off to any amount of evidence.  They are saying "I don't believe because I don't believe."  Such views are intellectually stifling and hardened to what God might say if they simply read the gospels with an open heart and mind to see the unparalleled life of Jesus on display.

In closing, the gospel literature is unique indeed.  It is part biography, part history, part theology yet passionately what Bauckham simply calls testimony

Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.  Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way.  It is where history and theology meet.[9] 

Let's go get some history and theology, in a portrait of the person of Jesus, truthfully set forth in the gospel of Mark.

[1] See the Urban Dictionary for a definition of the word floss - The Urban Dictionary, (accessed August 14 2007); available from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=floss.

[2] For a more sophisticated look at the uniqueness of Holocaust testimonies see the treatment in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 493-502.

[3] James Porter Moreland, Scaling the Secular City : A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987), 137-138.

[4] Ibid., 138.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] See particularly chapters 10 and 11 of Bauckham, 240-263.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] See the chapter "The Corroborating Evidence" interviewing history professor Edwin Yamauchi in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ : A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 73.

[9] Bauckham, 5,6.