Why do I think the New Testament narratives contain historical truth?

One of my friends over on my ghost forum wrote:

Much of the discussion I have had…  is regarding the bible. I asked the question – “How do you know the bible is a true record of what happened in Jesus’ life? That the disciples (or whoever else wrote it) didn’t elaborate on the stories in order to promote the religion that would have been seen as a ‘breath of fresh air’ at the time of Christ – hope when all else was gone.”

I thought this was interesting, so I hammered out a very quick reply, which I thought I would share…

To answer this properly would require a huge amount of time, so briefly – we don’t know the authors of most of the New Testament (henceforth NT) books. If Jesus dies in 1933, the Gospel accounts we have today were written between 1965 and about now – 2009 (just subtract 1900 to get the real dates). So the question is can we be certain about accounts written a long while after the events?

Well the first thing many people do not realize is that in the NT as well as the four gospels of Matthew Mark Luke and John we have the Epistles, which are divided in to two groups – the Pauline Epistles, and the Pastorals. The Pauline Epistles are all accredited to Paul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the early Church who converted – a bit like if James Randi became a medium and a major figure in Spiritualism over night. Paul also crops up a lot in one other books, Acts of the Apostles (also in the NT) which tells the story of the early Church after Jesus died. It’s a really fun story – you can find it here –http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts;&version=31;9; It was probably written by the same person who wrote Luke, so we call the author Luke.

Now of the Pauline Epistles Biblical Scholars (who are called Biblical Critics) believe seven were actually written by Paul. He was writing using my timeline example in the 1950’s, and died about (19)64 or (19)65, probably killed in Rome by the Romans. So his works date back to within 20 years of the crucifixion – more importantly if Jesus was crucified in (19)33, then he converted and began his ministry in (19)35 or 19(36), and knew a lot of people who were eyewitnesses, including Jesus’ brother James. So we have pretty direct testimony. (The other epistles were mainly probably written circa 1980 to 2010). All these dates are subject to debate, but these are mainstream scholarly figures.

So why believe the gospels contain truth about Jesus? Would we believe a ghost testimony from 1933? Was Borley Rectory really haunted? IT depends on the quality of the evidence. We all know stories can grow in the telling (though evidence suggests much in the paranormal/miraculous may be rationalized and forgotten) but one thing is pretty certain – there was a historical teacher called Jesus, who lived, died on a cross executed by the romans and inspired the movement today known as Christianity. Various kooks have tried to argue that he never existed, or that he was a version of a pagan deity, and older story given new life – but these claims are while popular (and they even got repeated by Stephen Fry on QI, who gave the Mithras December 25th rubbish) absolute nonsense. I have as it happens written a chapter of a book recently on them, and i can promise you it’s bilge. I might well post some extracts later. All mainstream historians agree there was a historical Jesus who was crucified. (A good mainstream study of what is called “the historical Jesus” is EP Sanders book, but the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has written some excellent stuff too from an explicitly non-Christian perspective. There are also some good atheist  books on the historical Jesus as well.)

Anyway, what we now have to establish is the order the books were written. With the Epistles, I have already mentioned the most likely dates. The Gospels are more complicated – almost all scholars agree Mark cam first, and was available to and used by Matthew and Luke (traditional names for the authors) when they wrote their books. However Matthew and Luke also seem to be aware of each other – but who wrote first? This question of which order these thee gospels were compiled is called the Synoptic Question, from the Greek term for similar or same – because they all tell much the same story. (the end of Mark is missing, and a bit tacked on to complete it – more on that another time.)

The remaining gospel, John is totally different – Jesus in it goes off on long speeches which are not like the ones in the other gospels, and it is more “theological” – less of a history, more of what Jesus meant. Most scholars date John last, but it may well contain elements, particular the Passion narrative – the bit about the crucifixion – which are older than the rest, indeed possibly the oldest of all our sources!

It is interesting that they disagree on which day Jesus was crucified – the Synoptics say the Passover, John the Eve of the Passover. Nonetheless, despite details varying in all the gospels, the general story is the same. We find the same traditions, littles stories called pericope, from the Greek word for beads, which were preserved and handed down by the earliest Christians, and the authors each told the story according to how they saw it , arranging the pericope in a string to make the story as they told it. You see how that works? Now if the Church had actually invented the whole thing, then we would actually expect the stories to agree far more. But they don’t. Look at the Resurrection accounts. Original Mark if it ever had one is missing – Paul certainly knew about it, and yet the other Gospels all tell different accounts of who went to the tomb first, and exactly what happened that day. This is what one would expect of a real event, muddled by years and retelling. If they invented the story, well they’d have got the story straight.

Secondly there is a key thing called the criterion of embarrassment. The heroes of the story, the Apostles, often look like real dumb asses. Peter, arguably the most important disciple, denies even knowing Jesus three times. They squabble over who gets to be head honcho in heaven., They repeatedly fail to understand him. And even Jesus says things that were awkward for the early Church – it strongly seems that he expected the world to end at any time, and God to end history before the disciples were all dead. Yet they died, and the world goies on. (this is actually not as fatal as it sounds, but it is a very important issue – the end of the world is something we call the Eschaton, the study of it Eschatology.) Then Jesus says his mission is to the Jews, not the Gentiles who he likens to dogs. This was really quite a problem for the church which was rejected largely by the Jews but flourished among Gentiles. I could go on, but you get the idea. So yes, the accounts are real enough – otherwise none of this “embarrassing” stuff would be in there! OK, so why trust them? Very early on people start making up all kinds of claims about Jesus, so there has to be some measure of what is a real account, and what is rubbish. Generally the books believed to be real became part of the Bible – this is called the canon, the development of which books constitute our modern New Testament. For a book to be in the canon, it had ot be credited to an eyewitness, and apostle, pretty much. Because from the beginning that was how it worked – those who were with Jesus in his life, and saw what actually happened were given the leadership – they were the Apostles, and authority was investyed in them. When they died off the Gospels were posibly written to preserve their beliefs.

There were other books – mainly much later, but some early, which were rejected by the Church, as not fitting what the eyewitnesses taught. Many of these are known as gnostic gospels, and i’ll talk about them another time, but they won’t (with one possible exception) get you any closer to the historical Jesus. And now I really, really must go to bed.

Anyway hope of some interest to someone – it really is written for people with absolutely no idea about these things, and yes I know one could easily dispute bits. 🙂

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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4 Responses to Why do I think the New Testament narratives contain historical truth?

  1. Chris says:

    “but one thing is pretty certain – there was a historical teacher called Jesus, who lived, died on a cross executed by the romans and inspired the movement today known as Christianity.”

    And your evidence for this “pretty certain thing” is..? You know, as opposed to the evidence we have for, I dunno, Bilbo Baggins?


  2. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Hey Chris, thanks for reading! Well we may well have paleontological evidence for “hobbits”, so good point! 🙂 (I assume you have seen the articles but if not google for hobbit +hominid +fossil !) Jokes aside, I started to cover it back in March, and will add part 2 later – here is part one — https://jerome23.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/debunking-the-myth-that-jesus-never-existed-the-historical-sources-for-jesus-part-one/

    Sorry my blog index appear to have vanished! I’ll fix that. Anyway hope of interest.

    cj x

  3. Shell says:

    THanks for that CJ.
    I find Marcus J Borg and his works(especially “meeting Jesus again for the first time”) very good for this exact hypothesis of the gospels and Spong is another good contender.

  4. Although Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical character, however, the content of the Gospels is certainly unreliable, since constituted by a mixture of real data, that is historicals, and by plenty of editorial material: that’s false, because of pure fantasy! .. .Thanks to researches at 360 °, without pre-conditioning of timing and / or ‘race’, today, thanks to the ‘magic’ Internet, it is possible to reconstruct the historical truth, less than marginal details, whose possible absence will not affect minimally the goodness of the reconstruction …

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