In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.
A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?
To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.
The Gospels as History
Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.
Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?
One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).
So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.
The Gospels as Scripture
A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.
First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.
Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.
Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.
Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.
The Role of Paul
Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?
A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.
One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.
So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.