Are the Gospels Fake News?
The big news lately is "fake news." In an age of memes and Google searches, it's easy to believe what we want to believe by situating ourselves in comfortable online echo chambers that confirm our previously held beliefs.
Somewhere in between polarized, ideological publications, the truth is out there - the objective, unbiased recounting of events. But it can be hard to know what is true, especially because what Nietzsche once wrote is so incredibly descriptive of our culture and the way we interpret reality:
We have entire news networks and a mess of social media shares that all interpret the facts according to our version of reality...
What makes the issue even more complicated is that true events, encountered with an understandable suspicion of fake news, may be met with disregard when they are in fact true. My wife and I were recently lamenting over the fact that the relative nature of truth created by a fake news culture often causes us to relativize everything - especially those things that conflict with reality as we would like to see it.
First Century Fake News?
So... what do we make of that truth claim that has echoed out into the halls of history, from continent to continent, into the hearts of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9) - the claim that the tomb of a Jewish rabbi named Jesus was... empty? And not only empty, but that more than 500 of his followers saw him alive? And what about that broader witness of the four Gospels, which, though not identical, give unanimous witness to the reality of the resurrection? Was this first-century clickbait, or the kind of truth that stands the test of historical fact checks?
Some New Testament scholars would approach the question by dismissing the possibility of resurrection altogether. Even though the Gospels present us with a real historical problem, only explanations that exclude the plain reading of the text and the unanimous voice of the church are allowed entry, not for lack of evidence, but rather for lack of a worldview category into which literal, physical resurrection would fit. Simply put - the resurrection didn't happen because it couldn't happen. But, as N.T. Wright points out (who, by the way, is no lightweight in the world of New Testament scholarship), these explanations are often "castles built in the air," and "the ordinary historian need not feel a second-class citizen for refusing to rent space in them" (pg. 19).
These "castles in the air" explanations often make the front page of Time Magazine and Newsweek around Christmas and Easter season. They focus on the sensational - often found lurking on the fringe of credible New Testament studies. Titles like "Was Jesus Married?" are sure to sell. Other times these articles do represent more mainstream scholarship, but from those who approach the text with a default setting of post-Enlightenment skepticism. However, more recently a flourish of excellent publications from well-respected authors have all pointed to the multitude of characteristics within the Gospels and other New Testament writings that suggest credibility rather than the stuff of fake news. Worldviews aside, a prioris on pause, an honest look at early Christian writings reveal that they possess characteristics of authenticity that deserve our careful attention.
As I write this post, I'm waste-deep in reading on this topic, so the list below is by no means exhaustive. But here are seven characteristics of the Gospels and other New Testament writings that strongly suggest faithful testimony instead of fake news.
The Gospels are incredibly detailed. Very few ancient writings give the kind of details they do about events. Luke begins his Gospel noting the care he took in gathering sources in order to write an "orderly account" of the events that had taken place (Luke 1:1-4). The resurrection accounts give incredibly precise details uncommon to ancient writings. Take, for instance, John's description of the empty tomb (John 20:1-10). Note the precise language he uses to describe the "scene" - linen cloths lying and face clothes folded, etc.
It's also worth noting that the Gospels fit very well into the history, geography, and customs of first century Palestine. Later "Gnostic" gospels often give away their lack of authenticity by lacking such details. For example, give the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas a quick read. Compare the details found in the four Gospels with details found in these. You'll likely notice a stark difference.
2) Naming Names
The first Christians believed that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus were public events - the kind of things that "were not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). This is why the Gospels do not hesitate to name names. For example, Jesus healed many people in Mark's Gospel. Some of these are nameless characters. But why does Mark mention specific names for others? The daughter of a man named Jairus (Mark 5:21-42), a blind beggar named Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) - does Mark give specific names because these were not only well-known disciples in the early church, but also part of the eyewitnesses upon which his Gospel relied? That's the argument of books like Richard Bauckham's Jesus the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.
Another example to briefly note is the list of post-resurrection eyewitnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 - "That he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve... to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep." The fact that most of these witnesses were still living invites the reader to go and check her references. Paul had no qualms about anyone asking around about what happened on the third day and the forty days after.
3) Multiple Sources
Some see four Gospels as a stumbling block. Aren't these competing, perhaps even contradicting accounts? But even despite attempts in the early church to create a single, streamlined version of the Gospel (this was called the "diatessaron," which was more or less an effort to patch the original four into a single narrative), the church rejected it. Rather, it insisted on keeping the distinct, yet complimentary narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One Gospel would be an echo chamber. The four that we have function as unique perspectives on the single witness to Jesus Christ, much like a diamond photographed from four different angles. There is a freedom of authorship among these four that goes against the grain of what we expect from contrived stories. In other words, there's enough different about the Gospels to make us uncomfortable at first glance, but then, upon closer examination, deeply satisfied with their unanimity.
4) Unexpected Events
From where we stand, events like resurrection and affirmations like "Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God" sound normal - perhaps expected - from first century writers. But this is not so.
As far as the resurrection goes, we need to remember two things (You can read the details in N.T. Wright's massive volume The Resurrection of the Son of God). First, resurrection of a body (as in the reversal of death, not just some kind of disembodied immorality) was not plausible or even expected among Greeks and Romans. According to Homer, Plato, the Epicureans, and the Stoics, death was a one way street with no return. Any concept of immortality meant escape from "the prison house of the body," but certainly not resurrection. And although first century Jews believed in bodily resurrection, they saw this as an event that would happen in the future for everyone, not in the middle of history to one person. This is why the disciples do not expect Jesus to be raised, the reason that the empty tomb evokes sorrow and confusion rather than elation, and the explanation for Thomas' refusal to believe unless he touches the wounds (John 20). This is also why the disciples first think that Jesus is a ghost. Did they believe in bodily resurrection? Yes. But did they expect this to happen to Jesus before the resurrection of all flesh at the final judgment? No.
One more thing on resurrection. The claim of the early church was twofold - the tomb was empty, and the risen Jesus appeared afterward to numerous disciples at multiple different occasions. What the New Testament never recounts is that very event we would expect narrators of a false story to describe in detail - the actual event of the resurrection. Nobody claims to have seen it happen.
What about the claim that Jesus was in fact God in the flesh? First, let's be clear that the early Christians did believe Jesus was divine, even if the exact language of the Nicene Creed wasn't worked out until later centuries. Richard Bauckham makes this clear in Jesus and the God of Israel, where he shows convincingly that first, Jews were obsessively careful to never attribute divinity or give worship to anyone or anything other than YHWH, and second, this is exactly what the first Christians did without hesitation. And these were no former pagans who wrote the New Testament - they were all faithful Jews whose worldview fit into the mainstream orthodoxy of second temple Judaism - except now radically redefined around the Messiah.
Fake news thrives on the predictable. Conspiracy theories are easy to explain in psychological or sociological terms. But what accounts for the explosive witness to the unexpected?
5) Unexpected Witnesses
If you're going to invent a story, you choose what look like credible witnesses. Who's going to buy into an account based on eyewitnesses whose words carry no weight in court? But this is exactly what the Gospel writers do. The Gospels do not hide the fact that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were women. Unfortunately, the witness of women did not carry legal weight in the ancient Greco-Roman world. But... the church insisted on telling the story as it happened, even if this may have questioned its authenticity, which, from our perspective, gives weight to its integrity.
Another surprising detail we often pass over is that the Gospels do not avoid to share with their readers how weak, faithless, and sometimes even clueless the disciples could be. Peter denies Jesus three times. The disciples are caught red-handed by Jesus arguing about who's the greatest. More than once their unbelief and slowness to understand is admitted, not hidden. Why would anyone fabricating a story choose these kinds of characters?
The French mathematician Blaise Pascal once quipped, "I believe those witnesses who get their throats cut." Martyrdom is the ultimate fact check. The apostles, some of whom were writers of the New Testament, as well as countless others in the first century, were willing to endure torture and death rather than deny that they had seen Jesus alive. Why? Because, as the apostle John writes, "We have seen it [Jesus - the Word made flesh], and testify to it" (1 John 1:2). Confessing that Jesus was raised from the dead meant losing everything. Even Paul admits, "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).
But don't people die for lies all the time? What about terrorists who fly airplanes into buildings? True. But, as it's been said, while people may die for a lie, they will not do so knowingly. It's inconceivable that the same people who saw Christ die would willingly die for the claim that he was raised, when in fact they knew this was a farce. And while mental illness or hallucination could be a factor for an isolated individual, is this really a plausible explanation for the willing martyrdom of multiple people in different locations?
7) Worldview Flip
Conversion from one view of reality to another is rare. How often do you meet someone who flips from listening to Rush Limbaugh one day to being an avid follower of Michael Moore the next? Conversions in our thinking certainly happen from time to time, but usually gradually rather than suddenly.
What do we make of the Apostle Paul? That Pharisee who opposed the church with all his might, only to undergo a very sudden conversion to the Christ he once denied... I find it humorous, but also a matter of weighty evidence, that the man who wrote one third of the New Testament was once as opposed to Jesus as Richard Dawkins is to the idea of God. Both Luke's book of Acts, as well as Paul's own epistles (the ones that even liberal scholars admit are authentic), give testimony to this conversion.
Paul is an individual who underwent conversion. But what about the community conversion that took place among first century Jews on matters previously inseparable from their faith in ages past? Why did Christians begin gathering for public worship not on the Sabbath, but now on Sundays (the Lord's Day)? A resurrection on a Sunday would have the effect of moving their day of meeting, would it not? And what about the inclusion of the Gentiles (non-Jews) into the community of faith, which also meant a new attitude toward food laws, circumcision, and table fellowship, all of which were previously defended to the point of death? We may forget that the martyrs of the Maccabean period gave up their lives refusing to eat pork... and not long after those who claimed the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were no longer relying on these former nonnegotiable matters as badges of covenant belonging. A crucified and risen Messiah redefined what it meant to be in covenant with God, which accounts for a radical new approach to the Torah.
The early church was aware of fake news. Competing Gospel accounts did exist. These gained great popularity, especially among the Gnostic sects of the second and third centuries. Interestingly enough, modern spiritual seekers find them sensational as well. But the church always knew these were fake - Gnostic "clickbait," if you will. And so the church rejected them (just as they rejected the diatessaron). Conspiracy theories abound about how the church suppressed the truth of these accounts, even to the point of bestselling novels. But if anyone wants to honestly defend their authenticity in relation to Jesus, I would suggest they carefully read them under the careful scrutiny of the previous seven criteria.
Reality Meets Presuppositions
I don't hold out any of this as a "slam-dunk" argument for the truthfulness of the Gospels. But for those who quickly dismiss the core tenet of Christian belief as "legend" or "myth," I would hope they would examine the evidence. As with most things, where we start informs where we end. If I wanted to believe that President Obama wasn't a citizen, there's plenty of "news" out there to confirm my belief. The same goes with ghosts, alien abductions, and 9/ll conspiracy theories. Likewise, if someone approaches the question of the resurrection from the predetermined perspective of philosophical and methodological naturalism (nothing exists beyond matter and only natural explanations are allowed), then regardless of the evidence for the resurrection (and the evidence is problematic in that it poses a real historical problem), resurrection is an impossibility. But then again, I suppose the universe very suddenly arising out of nothing 13.7 billion years ago, as well as life arising by natural causes alone, and the phenomenon of human consciousness that is able to grapple over these problems, are all problematic as well. Compared to the resurrection, I guess stranger things do happen.
*It just came to my attention that a post similar to this one was put out on the LCMS Blog by Rev. Timothy Pauls on Jan. 10th. Be sure to give it a read! "Fake News"
**If you're interested in doing some research on this topic, I would recommend the following books:
The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright
The Resurrection of the Messiah by Christopher Bryan
The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona
Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity by Larry Hurtado
Jesus and the God of Israel by Richard Bauckham
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham
Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran - South Windsor, CT