Skepticism and the Gospels

Over the last 150 years there has been a rise in skepticism with regard to the historical validity of the New Testament record concerning Jesus. Originally confined to scholars and theologians, this skepticism is beginning to influence popular thinking. The Jesus Seminar, a highly critical group of scholars, has been featured in national news magazines.  The intention of this group is to popularize non-traditional views of Jesus and the Gospels, primarily that Jesus said and did only a small percentage of what the Gospels claim. They assume that the Gospels were not written by the traditional writers, nor do they record an accurate picture of Jesus.  According to the Jesus Seminar, the early church created stories about Jesus to meet their own needs.

How JesusBart Ehrman’s recent How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (Harper Collins, 2013) is another example of a skeptical approach to the Gospels. The thesis of this book is that Jesus was simply a teacher in Galilee who developed a bit of a following and was executed by the Romans. His followers had some sort of visionary experience after the crucifixion. They believed Jesus rose from the dead and therefore developed the idea he was something more than a good teacher. As they re-told the story of Jesus, they created stories to support this understanding. By the time the Gospels were written there was a belief that Jesus was God.  Christology “as we know it” did not really exist until the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325).

How GodIn March of 2014 Michael Bird edited a collection of responses to Ehrman, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman (Zondervan 2014). The writers in his collection are not knee-jerk fundamentalists, yet they do not find Ehrman convincing. They read the evidence for the resurrection less skeptically and they see the development of Christology much earlier than Ehrman. Michael Bird calls is a “big bang” approach to Christology. Jesus himself is the source of a “high Christology.”

In the face of such skepticism, one might go to the other extreme and say they Christian just needs to “trust and obey.” We do not need to engage the skeptic, someone might say. This is a kind of “head in the sand” approach and is not very helpful.  Aside from the fact that publishers love this sort of controversy (everyone publishes books for and against the Jesus Seminar or Ehrman), dialogue with more skeptical approaches to the New Testament help to sharpen our minds and will create an environment where we are in fact seeking the truth.

There are issues in the Gospels that need to be clarified and objections need a good answer. Rather than avoid interpretation, we need to recognize that we are doing it and refine the tools and methods used for interpreting the Bible. In order to do this properly, we need to be familiar with the contributions and dangers of modern approaches to the New Testament, including those which may have assumptions diametrically opposed to that of Evangelical Christianity.

Should Evangelical Christians try to engage skeptics on the issue of Jesus and the origin of the Gospels? Are there any dangers inherent in using the tools of scholarship to answer skepticism?


12 thoughts on “Skepticism and the Gospels

  1. Phillip, you ask, “Should Evangelical Christians try to engage skeptics on the issue of Jesus and the origin of the Gospels?” I’ll give a definite “Yes!”

    It’s good to see this kind of question raised by and for Evangelicals. I didn’t significantly “engage skeptics” during seminary and following, even while working with Dr. Walter Martin in Christian apologetics (at CRI – 4 years). I didn’t deeply grapple with issues of NT or Christian origins, the genre of the Gospels/NT in relation to Christian origins, etc. until much later. (There’s a lot to cover in seminary, as you know, and Talbot didn’t countenance much doubt/exploration.) I wish I had engaged earlier.

    Following the “truth” wherever it may lead, as you imply is important, is difficult in more than one way. Subconsciously, we will engage in “confirmation bias”. We seek out validation more than challenge to our views, for understandable, but not the best of reasons. We weigh evidence poorly. And even if we become relatively open, detached from a need to believe a given thing, the entire picture of who Jesus was, what he actually said and claimed, how Christianity really got started and was like in the first 75 years or so, is complex. (The NT itself presents very minimal and sometimes not consistent information.)

    Brief summaries of issues don’t tend to cut it (including those in most NT intro books). But many people won’t or intellectually can’t follow slowly developed and complex analysis, whether of NT books or related material needed for understanding. Even with strong academic abilities, it’s taken me years, with PhD courses and literally thousands of hours of personal study over 20 years since those courses, to gain even a decent grasp of what appears to have been going on in the writing of the NT and the formation of Christianity in the first century and perhaps a little beyond, as far as NT composition dates. NOW…

    Any young or non-academic people reading should not be overly discouraged by this…. A lot of depth understanding is not critical to a live of faith, a life well-lived (following the model of Jesus as either an “Evangelical/conservative” or a “Liberal/progressive”… I call myself now a progressive and have learned that uncertainty about Jesus and accepting that the Bible is a confused mix of myth and history need not be an impediment to faith and living an “abundant life”).

  2. P.S. to above comment: I’ve read and heard a lot of Ehrman’s work and have found him a careful and thorough scholar… about as historical and non-theological as one can get. (None of us can be fully “non-theological”, but those who have shifted AFTER substantial study, as he did and I have similarly, I find to be in a stronger position, other things being equal.)

    I haven’t read all of his latest book as cited above, but some of it and some of the responses. And in hearing him in discussion (more than debate) with one of the co-authors (Gathercole, I believe), he admits to being basically part of the “early high Christology” club, although it does not persuade him that the early views of Jesus as divine were correct or necessarily based on an actual bodily resurrection of Jesus. I have to agree with him, having been “raised” and trained initially with the deity of Christ view and, even after switching from it, continue to engage not just blogs like this, but some of the best of Evangelical scholars. I do still learn things from them and respect their kind of faith, though do not see it as the most mature and helpful kind.

  3. Howard, I appreciated your response to this post. Your willingness to interact with skeptics – and even acknowledge your own difficulties in studying Scripture – is refreshing. I agree with you that it is often difficult as we engage in our own study of Scripture to truly look at things with a new perspective, without the influence of our own theological presuppositions. I found your statement that “we seek out validation more than challenge to our views” to be more true of myself than I would like to admit. It is often far too easy to use Scripture to proof-text our beliefs rather than forming our beliefs based on Scripture. But I think that this is precisely why it is so important for believers to be ready and willing to engage those who are skeptical about the historicity of Jesus and the Gospels.

    We should have no fear of skeptics. Facing criticism or skepticism should only encourage us to pursue truth all the more passionately. At best, after devoting time to study and investigate the skeptics’ claims, our beliefs will be reaffirmed and our faith will be even stronger. At worst, we will find errors in our own thinking that will be corrected. Either way, exposure to and interaction with skeptics should only serve to strengthen us in truth. This kind of study helps us to really take ownership of our faith. N.T. Wright reminds us that, “just because our tradition tells us that the Bible says and means one thing or another, that does not excuse us from the challenging task of studying it afresh. . . to see whether these things are indeed so” (Wright, 17).

    Ultimately, it is important to remember that the Gospels were written with the purpose “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31 NASB). While we must pursue truth and academic excellence, we must be careful not to address skeptics on a purely academic level, because rejection of Christ is foremost a matter of the heart.

    • Thanks for your supportive comment, Lindsey. Maybe you perceived this already, but I don’t fell that I just “interact with skeptics”. I AM one myself, in one legitimate sense at least. Yet still a “person of faith”. To me, and many professional scholars in biblical studies (I’m just a studious amateur in it), the two can and do go together. However, I’m not “orthodox” unless you take even the historic creeds (or “confessions”, “catechisms”) and “core doctrines” as symbolic…. That is, I respect them as speaking of deep mysteries but not as representing literal “truths”.

      Similarly, I see the Bible as mainly expressing what you refer to, people’s experiences of God, their desire to “know” God, etc.

      You speak of “rejecting Christ” as mainly a matter of the heart. Accurate in one sense… BUT it’s complicated 🙁 . For example, WHAT “Christ” is one rejecting or accepting…. For me and a great many (probably most) people who take their faith and learning from the Bible or other aspects of spirituality seriously, our concept of who IS Christ (or the historical Jesus declared as Christ [Messiah]) changes over time. So we may be “rejecting” one image of Christ while “accepting” another.

      The problem I have with the Evangelical (and others’) concept of orthodoxy is that certain “essential” lines are drawn as to what one must accept within their sincere, seeking image of Christ. I won’t detail… you and others probably know such things, and some people add their own. Go outside this bounded image and you can’t be a Christian and/or are not “saved”. Really? (By “orthodox” or “Bible-believing” standards I’m probably not “saved” anymore…. although I ONCE was, for all I or anyone around me thought…. But I have zero worry about it.) And so many people, including pastors and other leaders, can’t or won’t see the presumptuousness and/or arrogance of this “Jesus (or Christ) figured out”.

      They need to believe their long study and prayer, submission to the positions of traditional believers and such, must have brought them to knowing who Christ really was and is.

      Yet, I will add this… if one is at the mental/emotional stage of needing a simple certainty about Jesus, I don’t mean to unduly stretch that…. Just realize it is normal for understandings of him to change over time, especially if one reads the Gospels in close comparison (simple form of “criticism”). And to some it may appear to be “loss of faith” when it may not be that at all.

  4. I’m going to come at this question from a bit of a different perspective. I cannot sound as scholarly and well-though-out as Howard and Lindsey since I honestly don’t think of theological things often, or at least not from the standpoint of wanting to “study” God. I personally more enjoy the experiences of God and reading and rereading His word, letting it speak to me each time in new ways. For this reason I believe we who have faith in the one true God should boldly give evidence of what we believe and, yes, engage skeptics and anyone else on the issues of who Jesus was and the origin of the Gospels. Perhaps that is naiive of me, or misinformed. But from my experience it works a whole lot better to show people something is true rather than to tell them it is. For example, I’m sure anyone would agree it is better to shown love than to be told they are loved. Because of this I believe our job is not to go around convincing people of our beliefs, but to show them that believing Christ and trusting Him and devoting one’s life to Him is the way to live a life worthwhile, full of hope and peace and fulfillment. i have always taken the position to be ready to give an answer whenever anyone questions my hope (1 Peter 3:15), but not to go out looking for discussions in which I can prove someone wrong.

  5. I can obviously understand why people would come to the conclusion that these stories of Jesus life are not true. I can understand this because if we think about it, how many urban legends do we hear about on a regular basis. Take the Loch Ness monster for example. The legends talk about their being a great sea monster that dwells in a lake in Scotland. Because these stories are ‘legends’ they get passed down from generation to generation and over those years, the story tends to get a bit inflated. This is similar to what people may think about the Jesus story. Maybe something fishy happened after Jesus died and the disciples inflated the story into something that it wasn’t.

    Approaching stories in the Bible like this can be useful. It’s just like Biblical Criticism by way of challenging what we think and coming to a further and deeper conclusion of what we believe. Wright has a quote that speaks directly to the importance of the validity of the happenings in Bible times.
    “If Christianity is not rooted in things that actually happened in first century Palestine, we might as well be Buddhists, Marxists or almost anything else”(Wright 18).

    If we can draw any one positive thing from skepticism, it would be that it’s a different way of approaching things and it gives us a different perspective on what we believe happened or what the Bible says. By knowing the flip-side of our beliefs, it helps us to be able to speak to people who think that way about the Bible and the happenings in that time.

  6. There are many different types of skepticism that many authors and other groups of people create in order to try and prove the issue of Jesus and the origin of the gospels. As Christians, we can see this in our everyday lives by those who debate about religion and faith. I think that Evangelical Christians should try to engage skeptics on this issue, but in a very careful way. In a way, I think that some of these skeptics are insulting Jesus and his teachings, along with the overall authority of the Bible by denying its truth. So by defending our faith, we are showing an act of acknowledging Jesus and our beliefs, which we are called to do. In Matthew 10:32-39 Jesus says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven”.

    But acting upon this could be a very dangerous task. If an Evangelical Christian feels called to act upon an issue like this, they must use proper tools and methods. It is easy to get caught up in the emotions and feelings of an argument and completely forget the point of focus at hand. This should be done in a forgiving and loving way and not as an attack or a reaction to the offense.

  7. In my opinion, the origin of the Gospels is significant not only to the development of our faith, but to our ability to share and defend our faith. The Gospels are the closest documents we have to the life of Jesus, and they provide the information that helps us to understand our faith in Him. As most of us do, I believe that the Gospels are accurate and literal, and that their authorships are accurate as well. But like all of us, I realize that not everyone will believe in the stories described in the Gospels, or at least every part of them. As Christians, we are called to interact with these “skeptics” so we can explain our faith and why we have it. The accuracy of the Gospels is crucial to our faith, and in order to defend it we need to interact with people who do not believe in that accuracy. There are many tools we can use to do this, such as using historical facts, archeological findings, etc.

  8. It seems to me that it would be difficult to call yourself a Christian without believing in the Gospels, and that is what sets us apart from the Jews in some ways. If you believe in absolute truth and after making your own criticisms know that God died on that cross for you, that you take to heart the text in the Gospels. People may be skeptical because each version has things added or subtracted from their story, but that is because this string of events was witnessed from different views at different times. Wright even talks about the importance of believing and understanding what we read in the bible to be true, because to disagree is to not believe. If you don’t believe why claim to be a Christian in the first place. We must not even go around reducing the story, or changing it to fit our logic. We cannot understand or comprehend the thoughts of God, and should not try to, isn’t that the point of having faith? To change it, is to disregard it, and to disregard is to not believe.

  9. When it comes to exegesis of the Gospels, Ehrman, and many other skeptics, would claim evangelicals are prevented by their dogmatic presuppositions from drawing the historical conclusions that observation demands. This makes engaging skeptics on the issue of Jesus and Gospels difficult if not impossible.

    Can I exegete the Gospels with the dogmatic presupposition that Jesus was the messiah and that he knew he was the messiah? From a purely historical perspective, a la Bultmann and Ehrman, I can only know this with relative certainty and no amount of historical research could endow it with absolute validity. For better or worse, without dogmatic presuppositions, all historical knowledge is open for discussion and, consequently, Jesus messianic consciousness would forever be an open question for exegetes.

    • Good point, a purely historical method for the Gospels can only give probability, barring the discovery of a document signed by Jesus claiming to be the Messiah. But even an inductive historical argument can lead close enough to the truth for most historians to accept as “likely true.” Everyone has presuppositions, I am just more open about mine!

  10. I only came to know Christ a few years ago and while I was in disbelief, my main interest was figuring out who Jesus was and the validity of the Gospels. So to quickly answer that question, yes I believe Christians should actively engage skeptics on these issues. Our world is bent on proof and evidence. We want the facts! I’m sure that there are many people out there who want/need this information first. I know that the idea of Hell, the end times, and the purpose/meaning of life can also lead people to Christ. A stubborn atheist would probably rather have the history, facts, and validity of the Jesus and the Gospels before the rest of the story is important to them. This to me is where we reach another problem with our world today. A skeptic or questioning individual looking for the history, facts, and validity of Jesus and the Gospels may start looking towards articles, arguments, and scholars for these answers rather than a Bible. The Bible is not enough for the skeptic. They want push back and the Christian Bible doesn’t provide other opinions by itself. They want to see the formed opinions and explanations. Our chapter 1 reading from Strauss clearly points out sources for information about Jesus outside the Gospels. That is what I looked into before I was saved. So if we were engaging skeptics with the Bible and these sources, correlating those with the Bible, then I would think that’s the best way that we can engage them. If it was me, I would use my ESV study Bible and engage the skeptic first with the information between the testaments. Then I would correlate that with known history. This of course leading up to Jesus and the Gospels in the Roman period, I would then use the few outside sources that we have along with the Gospels to successfully engage the disbeliever. If that’s ignored, which I believe that first step should be taken, then you’re going to at least have the chance to warn the skeptic about the dangers of looking towards outside scholarship. Despite what you’ve learned or been taught, you’re going to understand things the way you comprehend them, and you’re going to interpret them the way you construe them. That’s the danger with scholarship. Scholarship is the academic study or achievement; learning of a high level. That definition works for me when it comes to certain things, but not religion. Understanding Jesus and the Gospels in the end will come down to faith and what you believe. When it comes to faith and understanding, those are personal to me and I don’t see the need for outside scholars (in some sense). So get your Bible and your history books and make your own judgment on the validity of Jesus and the Gospels. We didn’t have any assigned scripture for the first week, so I’m just going to put in 2nd Timothy 3:16. “All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”

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