Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Bible's Human Origins: Gospels - Part 2

Continuing on with the gospels, I now look at the textual dependence and historical reliability.

Textual Dependence

Scholars generally agree that both Matthew and Luke copied much of their material from Mark. This is evident just by reading and comparing them.
When one compares the synoptic parallels, some startling results are noticed. Of Mark’s 11,025 words, only 132 have no parallel in either Matthew or Luke. Percentage-wise, 97% of Mark’s Gospel is duplicated in Matthew; and 88% is found in Luke. On the other hand, less than 60% of Matthew is duplicated in Mark, and only 47% of Luke is found in Mark.
This raises some important questions. If Luke claims he got material from eye-witnesses, why did he copy half of it from Mark? Further, if the gospel of Matthew really was written by the disciple with the same name, then according to the text he was an eye-witness himself. Why would he then copy more than half of his material from Mark, who wasn't an eye-witness (and doesn't claim to be)?

This textual dependence also raises another important question. How many truly independent sources do we actually have?

One of the criteria often quoted in support of the historical reliability of the gospels is "multiple attestation". But if the gospels were copied from each other, were the events really multiply attested?

Historical Reliability

There appears to be no real consensus among scholars surrounding how much of the gospels is historically reliable.
The historical reliability of the Gospels refers to the reliability and historic character of the four New Testament gospels as historical documents. Although some claim that all four canonical gospels meet the five criteria for historical reliability, others say that little in the gospels is considered to be historically reliable. 
Almost all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Elements whose historical authenticity is disputed include the two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including the resurrection, and certain details about the crucifixion.
The consensus view is that the gospels were written down between about 70 - 100CE, with Mark being written first, followed by Matthew and Luke roughly a decade or so later, and then John following sometime in the mid 90's. That puts them about 40-70 years after the events they claim to narrate. The earliest New Testament text is considered to be the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, dated to around 53CE. Paul does make reference to Jesus' resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, but otherwise he mentions very little about Jesus' life. There is almost no overlap between Paul's writings and the events recorded in the gospels.

It is believed that the stories contained in the gospels were passed around orally for decades until they were finally written down in the form of the gospels, or perhaps an earlier source named Q (though there is still some debate on that). Apologists often claim that people had much better memories back then, and that they were careful to preserve all of the details of the traditions. I have found no evidence to support this claim. In fact the evidence we do have, from people who have studied oral cultures still extant today, is that stories do change over time, and details are changed with each retelling. Further, each retelling, having been adapted for the particular audience, is considered an "original account" in its own right, rather than a retelling of something much older.

In the context of this article, my main interest in the gospels would be the resurrection accounts. Even if the gospels weren't divinely inspired, a confirmed resurrection would be a miracle that would demand closer inspection. Some argue that it would give the ultimate authority to Jesus' words. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I don't really see the connection. For one thing, it's not immediately clear that we even have Jesus' words in many cases.

As for the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances, I think they are far from historically reliable.  There are many discrepancies, and also signs of legendary development. Mark tells us there was "a young man" sitting near the tomb. Matthew has "an angel". Luke has "two men", and a scene where Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and eats a fish. John has "two angels" and a lengthy story about Jesus going on a fishing trip with the disciples in Galilee.

Some believers feel that even if the Bible wasn't divinely inspired, there is still sufficient evidence to prove the resurrection. I disagree. All that the gospels provide is anecdotal evidence (not even first-hand mind you), which is never going to be enough to support an event as extraordinary and unlikely as a resurrection. There are many reports of resurrections from all over the world , some even within the last 100 years. I don't believe any of them are true. However, the evidence for those claimed resurrections is far superior to what we have in the gospels. In many cases there are (alleged) eye-witnesses still alive who could be interviewed. Yet for some reason many Christians remain skeptical of these stories while whole-heartedly believing the one in the gospels. Why? What's the difference? It seems to me that the gospels are only convincing to people who either trust them implicitly on faith, or were taught Christianity as a child (when they were too young to reason about it).

I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead. Without a resurrection, there is no Christianity.


We have seen that the gospels contain misquotations, contradictions, material that has been copied verbatim from other gospels, and even what appear to be signs of legendary development.

All of this is easily explained by the "human origins" hypothesis. In fact there's not really anything to explain. It fits like a glove.

I have no idea how the gospels could have been divinely inspired. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Next Article: Acts and Letters