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?