The Beggars Blog is a network of Lutheran pastors Commenting on the intersection between theology and everything.

Apologetics: The Gospels, The Telephone Game, and Critical Scholarship

Apologetics: The Gospels, The Telephone Game, and Critical Scholarship

We’ve all heard it before. “We can’t trust the stories in the Gospels because they are the product of oral tradition passed on decades after the actual events.” In other words, like a game of telephone in which “I saw a school bus” becomes “I bought a walrus,” events explainable by natural causes eventual morph into astounding miracles (a nice community picnic with Jesus becomes bread and fish multiplied!) and sayings appropriate of a first century Jewish rabbi later become projections of beliefs about a divine Son of God (for example, the “I am” statements in John’s Gospel). Broadly speaking, this is the argument of critical scholars like Bart Ehrman and J.D. Crossan. Such arguments are standard in many college New Testament classes and History Channel specials during the Christmas and Easter seasons. But are these claims actually true? Are they based on solid evidence?

Form Criticism

The scholarly method behind such skepticism is what New Testament scholars call form criticism.[1] Gaining popularity in the early twentieth-century, one of the assumptions of the form critical method is that the stories we have in the Gospels tell us more about the needs, conflicts, and concerns of the early church than they do about the actual events they supposedly report. For example, when the Gospel of John tells us that Peter and John ran to the empty tomb of Jesus, the story reveals not so much that the tomb was empty, but rather that there was a power struggle between two groups of Christians−a “John group” and a “Peter group” (John 20:3-10).[2]

On a basic level, form criticism does make a valid point. The Gospel writers had many stories about Jesus to choose from, as well as control over the details they reported and refrained from reporting. The stories they chose about Jesus, the way they reported those stories, and even the order they placed them in do tell us what was important to the early church.[3] However, the claim that the Gospels stories are the result of a very tenuous telephone game over the decades deserves to be challenged.

The Scholarly Telephone Game

What’s interesting to me is that the same process critical scholars apply to the Gospel stories is very often the same process at work in their critical method. The telephone game scenario applies not only to how we supposedly got the Gospel stories, but also to the modern stories about how we got the ancient stories.

Let me illustrate how this works. A brilliant German scholar sits in his university office, puzzling over the history of a particular Gospel text. His post-enlightenment intellectual commitments lead him to assume that miracles are not possible. And yet, the text he is seeking to account for claims that a miraculous event took place at the hands of Jesus. Since the miraculous intervention of God is categorically impossible (and his existence suspect), the miracle in the Gospel text must be accounted for by natural means alone.

At this point the modern social sciences come in handy. He applies the latest trends in psychology and sociology to the far removed characters in the text, as well as to the even more mysterious writer behind the text.[4] He may even construct a hypothetical community behind the writing, or even an epic battle between church authorities. There is very little hard evidence for these claims, however, they are plausible and attractive−perhaps even affirming of the current philosophy de jour.

So, a scholarly rumor gets started−an academic telephone game, if you will. The claim is presented at scholarly conferences, thus obtaining a passport to the academic halls of the United States and elsewhere. Since the rumor has a prestigious PhD behind it, the book that follows finds favor far and wide. To this renowned scholar flock the brightest and best young scholarly minds, who all covet the professor as a doctoral advisor.[5] And so the rumor is no longer a rumor−it arrives at the level of assumed, undisputed textbook orthodoxy. The telephone game is complete.

Outdated Theories?

This scenario is hypothetical, but not far from reality. Isn’t this the case with the once popular JEDP source hypothesis?[6] It’s no secret that this past pillar of critical Old Testament scholarship is less and less cited as authoritative. And yet, the rumor remains. As Old Testament scholar Duane Garrett has quipped, “The documentary hypothesis is a zombie. It is dead but still roaming the halls of Old Testament scholarship seeking its next victim”[7]

Some would argue the same is true of the form critical method−the very method upon which so much scholarly skepticism rests. In his groundbreaking book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham observes, “It is a curious fact that nearly all the contentions of the early form critics have by now been convincingly refuted, but the general picture of the process of oral transmission that the form critics pioneered still governs the way most New Testament scholars think.”[8]

Bauckham’s book is a convincing testimony to the opposite claim of critical scholars. Citing evidence from the texts of the Gospels, the early church fathers, and the well-documented practices of ancient Roman historiography, he makes an equally persuasive (and in my opinion more convincing) case that the stories in the Gospels are the result of careful eyewitness testimony of the events themselves rather than the gradual fabrication of the early church. Ehrman and others quickly dismiss the weight of Bauckham’s evidence, but given their previous commitment to methodological skepticism, what else should we expect?[9]

Be Careful Where You Rent Scholarly Space

All in all, scholars need to exercise deeper humility as they approach the text of the Gospels. So much of what is claimed as “certain” or “highly likely” is simple assumptions built upon assumptions, rooted more in bias than clear evidence. And to make matters more complicated, the evidence is always interpreted through the lens of previous intellectual, moral, and spiritual commitments (both skeptical and believing).

For this reason, those on the receiving end of confident scholarly claims−whether in a freshman religion class at the university or while watching a documentary on the historical Jesus−should not base their opinions on appeals to authority, but should instead be equally skeptical of such skeptical claims. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “When traditio-historical study (the examination of hypothetical stages by which the written gospels came into existence) builds castles in the air, the ordinary historian need not feel like a second-class citizen for refusing to rent space in them.”[10] In other words, no one is under any obligation to buy into critical theories about the origins of the Gospels, since these are often based upon what Wright elsewhere calls “elaborate guesswork.”[11] While some of these theories are plausible, that does not immediately means they are verifiable or even true.

Pastor John Rasmussen, Our Savior Lutheran Church, South Windsor, CT

[1] For an overview of the form critical method, see Charles B. Puskas and David Crump, An Introduction to the Gospels and Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 55-62. For a positive endorsement of the method see Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 12-13, 58-66.

[2] Crossan asserts, “The apparition stories now present in our gospels are about authority rather than apparition or, better, about authority by apparition.” Cited from an essay in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 177. N.T Wright describes this stance as “elaborate guesswork” in which we are offered scenarios about “power-plays in which the accreditation of different apostles or would-be apostles is fought on the battleground of (fictitious) resurrection narratives.” N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 19. Michael Licona explains and assesses Crossan’s claim in The Resurrection of Jesus: A Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 519-56.

[3] Richard Bauckham explains, [The Gospels] “embody the testimony of eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with the eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 6.

[4] William Lane Craig observes, “Psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even when the patient is seated in front of you, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures.” Cited from Licona, The Resurrection, 483.

[5] And, as Bauckham observes, “Young scholars, learning their historical method from Gospel scholars often treat it as self-evident that the more skeptical they are toward their sources, the more rigorous will be their historical method.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 486.

[6] This is the old claim that the Torah is the result of four sources: J (Jahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomic), and P (Priestly). These sources represent different periods and religious movements in the history of Israel, and were later patched together into the first five books of Moses. For an overview and assessment see Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2015), 149-51.

[7] Quoted from Jones, How We Got the Bible, 150. Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham adds, “Some of the most deeply rooted convictions of the critical consensus have been challenged in recent years.” He further quotes W.H. Schmidt, who laments, “How united was OT scholarship for so long, how deeply divided now!” Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), xxxiv-xxxv.

[8] Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 242.

[9] Ehrman quickly dismisses the weight of Bauckham’s argument. He writes, “Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham’s case persuasive. It founders [sic] on numerous grounds, not the least of which is its steadfast refusal to take seriously scholarship of eyewitness testimony undertaken for more than a century by such experts as legal scholars.” Jesus Before the Gospels, 101. In my opinion, a close reading of Ehrman reveals that he quickly dismisses Bauckham without dealing in detail with his evidence, and furthermore, even a quick reading of Bauckham reveals that he has done his homework in the area of research on eyewitnesses and memory−even to the point of devoting an entire chapter! (see chapter 13). Ehrman is also misleading when he states that the book is an echo chamber for conservative evangelical Christians. It’s questionable whether Bauckham even fits into this category (for example, he argues that John’s Gospel was written by John the Elder rather than the son of Zebedee), and furthermore, James Dunn−arguably moderate in his theological and scholarly convictions−is one of the book’s endorsers on the back cover!

[10] The Resurrection of the Son of God, 19.

[11] Ibid.

Apologetics: Do the New Testament Writers View Their Work as History? Or Religious Fiction?

Apologetics: Do the New Testament Writers View Their Work as History? Or Religious Fiction?

Faithfulness or Flight? What Should Lutherans Make of the Benedict Option?

Faithfulness or Flight? What Should Lutherans Make of the Benedict Option?