Quest for the Historical Jesus
Liberal scholarship has agreed on one point and one point alone: the Jesus of history is not the Jesus presented in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Rook Hawkins, co-founder and self-styled ancient texts expert of the Rational Response Squad, has utilized this as the starting point for his article, “Which Jesus: A Legend with a Multiple Personality Disorder?” The foundation of this article is a prior article in which Rook examines the genre of the gospels and concludes that they were never intended to be read as biographies. It is with that article that I will start, because if an argument is based on a faulty premise, then its conclusion is nothing more than fruit from a poisoned tree.
Are the gospels ancient biographies or not? Apologist J.P. Holding asserts the fact that they are is “beyond dispute.” Rook disagrees, with the following three objections:
Discrepancies in the Narratives. It cannot be disputed that discrepancies in the narratives exist, but these are evidence not of fictionalizing the accounts, as Rook asserts, but is evidence that the gospels were written independently of each other. Of Christian apologists, Rook says:
. . . the very reason why discrepancies exist (although some claim, falsely, that no discrepancies exist) is because eyewitness testimony could not be 100% similar across four accounts; that, had they been all copies of each other, this would have raised suspicion of their accuracy. Therefore, per these apologists, the Gospels are different and conflict precisely because they are eyewitness testimony.
No. The dominant apologetic view is that the gospels differ because they were written as independent attestations, not with the four evangelists huddled in a corner somewhere cooking up nonsense. This is a strawman argument: Rook is setting up something that is easier to knock down than the current view.
But do the discrepancies weaken or strengthen the gospel accounts? I don’t think that they do anything to call the integrity of the stories into question. The discrepancies are neutral, and to be expected. This just isn’t an issue the way that Rook makes it out to be.
Why? J.P. Holding looked into the issue at length, and concluded that different writers choose different details and write accordingly depending on their bias and storytelling objective. Biographies are not immune to this fact, and neither are the gospels. To illustrate his point, Holding went to the local library and chose four biographies of Abraham Lincoln at random from the shelves. He notes numerous discrepancies and outright contradictions in this series of articles.
In conclusion, the discrepancies are only a problem if they cannot be harmonized with each other. Many good books exist that harmonize the gospels. If one treats the gospels as one would treat any reliable source of information, the problem of discrepancy vanishes. It is a complete non-issue.
Different theologies underlie each gospel. Building from the discrepancies in the texts, Rook concludes that they “exist because the authors altered the text of the version they copied from. This is why there are different theological perspectives in each of the four Gospels.” Instead of concluding that the discrepancies exist because the gospel writers worked independently of each other, Rook follows the Bultmann school of thought that the gospels were subsequent legendary accounts built on each other.
Different theologies exist even today. This distracts from the issue at hand, which is whether or not the gospels are biographies. So far, the differences between the accounts has done nothing to detract from the fact that these are reliable historical pieces. Therefore, extending the differences into the metaphysical realm does nothing to build Rook’s case either.
The gospels are simply a Hellenistic re-interpretaion of Jewish Scripture. Rook says:
Hellenistic scholars outside of New Testament fields agree that Hellenistic Jews were famous for inventing fictional stories, events, characters and even whole wars to make their traditions more ‘Greek’, while reinterpreting scripture to show their cultural superiority. Is that not what the Gospels are? Are they not reinterpreted scripture, written in Hellenistic fashion? (emphasis added)
First, note that Rook’s experts are outside of the New Testament fields. While this doesn’t completely invalidate their opinion on this issue, it does call them into question. They are scholars of Hellenistic literature, not New Testament scholars. This means that they are qualified to offer their opinions on the gospels’ similarities to Hellenistic literature. However, these experts are not qualified to offer their opinions on the New Testament itself, as they are not studied in the relevant fields.
Rook should consult some credentialed New Testament scholars and seek their opinions.
There is also an important underlying presupposition here: that prophecy cannot be fulfilled if written before the fact. This is the same reason that liberal scholars use to date the synoptics after a.d. 70–because Jesus prophecies that the Temple will be destroyed, the gospels must have been written after the event occurred.
Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rook cannot attack the integrity of the Old Testament MSS, such as claiming that Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 was inserted after the time of Christ. It is firmly established that the Jewish Scriptures–and all the prophecies therein–predate Christ. So Rook is taking another route: claiming that the stories in the gospels never recorded historical events, but were written to re-interpret these prophecies. This reduces the gospels to Jewish inspirational fiction.
That would be valid if not for the volumes of scholarship that show that the gospels were intended to be read as biographies–real biographies. Rook simply dismisses those claims, holding instead to liberal scholarship.
Further, Glenn Miller notes that fiction didn’t come into its own until late in the Hellenistic period, far too late for it to have any influence on the gospels. Hellenistic fiction was written in poetry, but the gospels were written in prose. The style of fiction was far more dramatic than the stories presented in the gospels. Examining Hellenistic fiction yields far more differences between it and the gospel accounts for anyone to make the assumption that the gospels were intended to be read as fiction. (source)
In other words, people from the time period would have read the gospels and understood them to be exactly what Christians have always asserted them to be: biographies. The people wouldn’t have thought that the gospels were intended as fiction; they would have known that they were reading facts. They are incredible facts, but facts nonetheless.
Overall, the article is laced with appeals to anonymous scholarly authority and presents no real argument that the gospels were intended to be read as fiction. There is no examination of relevant inspirational literature from the time–mainly because examining such pieces would invalidate Rook’s entire argument. Instead, to the question “What is a Gospel,” Rook gives this non-answer:
And the answer has to be met with criticism, in light of the exposed presuppositions mentioned above, and needs to be addressed by scholarship as a whole. Until this is done adequately, scholarship will continue to present us not the Jesus of history, nor a Gospel history, but a history fashioned entirely by the scholars themselves. Whole worlds have been—and will continue to be—created which never existed. Entire reflexive trends in Judaism have been assumed and, in a typical ad hoc manner, critiqued and presented as if they were known to Jews in the first century Common Era. Of course, they were not.
Therefore, according to Rook, we don’t know what the gospels are and until we answer that question, we will never know the Jesus of history, only the Jesus that the scholars wish to present. On the final point I agree with Rook: liberal scholars are presenting not a Jesus of history, but a Jesus fashioned after their own presuppositions. To his credit, Rook is railing against that trend.
Since Rook has not shown that the gospels are fiction, I will continue to assume that they are historical documents and accurate biographies of Jesus as we dive into the main article I set out to answer: “Which Jesus?” Founded on the principle that the gospels are literary fiction, Rook examines the three positions that scholars today hold about Jesus. The first is the Historical Christ hypothesis, which is the one that I will defend. For this position to be tenable, the gospels must be 100% accurate, as I believe that they are.
Given the accuracy of the gospels, one would expect no contradictions between them. Rook agrees, so he cites what he perceives as contradictions. The first contradiction is that Jesus wants to abolish the Law in Mark (2:18-20, 23-28, 7:15) but uphold the Law elsewhere (Mt 5:17-21, 23:1-3; Lk 16:16-17). The problem is that none of the verses that Rook cites from Mark have Jesus abolishing the Law; rather, consistent with Matthew and Luke’s narratives, Jesus is expounding the Law and repudiating the Pharisees’ perversion of it. All three synoptics have numerous examples of Jesus doing that, most dramatically presented in Matthew 23:1-36, the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees.”
The second contradiction that Rook presents is the Resurrection narratives, which are all very different from one another. The key to harmonizing the Resurrection narratives is to remember that in the major details, they are in agreement:
A group of women followers of Jesus went to Jesus’ tomb. There, they discovered it was empty. They were told by a heavenly being that Jesus had rose from the dead. Later, Jesus appeared to them. They told the disciples, who were skeptical. Jesus appeared to the disciples, and the rest is history.
The minor details, such as when or how many heavenly beings appeared to the women, when Jesus appeared, how many women, etc. are not as important. The differences are only important if they cannot be reconciled with one another, but Rook fails to show that. It is possible to reconcile the differences.
Again, I note J.P. Holding’s extended project on gospel harmony here. Even modern biographies differ in detail, and sometimes offer contradictory accounts of the same events within a person’s life. It is Rook’s job to show why this is a problem in Jesus’ life, but not with the life of other historical figures about which multiple biographies have been written.
Given the contradictions, which Rook sees as an insurmountable problem to the Historic Christ hypothesis, he concludes that that Jesus could not have been the Christ. I believe that I have shown, and Holding’s highly recommended series shows, that these are not insurmountable problems. It is easy to deal with them without being dishonest, as Rook claims. We need not cherry-pick verses, as Rook also claims.
After this, Rook spends a while arguing against the second interpretation of Jesus, the Historic Jesus hypothesis. I have no intention of critiquing this position, as it is not the one I’m defending. Suffice it to say that I agree with many of the problems that Rook points out with this position. He insists that the Historic Christ school of thought must cherry-pick verses or be outright dishonest, but fails to document a single example. Here, he actually demonstrates cherry-picking and dishonesty with numerous examples.
Rook concludes by saying that there are as many opinions of the Historical Jesus as there are scholars working on it. This, he thinks, is the major problem with it. The claim that there is a historic Jesus below the mythology of the gospels will never be verified because, in Rook’s mind, there is no historical Jesus. Rook asserts that we cannot take for granted that Jesus was historical, because “[t]aking things for granted is what evangelicals do—not critical historians.”
Rook noted earlier that the Historic Christ hypothesis is held by a minority of scholars, and that the Historic Jesus hypothesis is held by the majority. If the minority and majority opinions have each been examined, where does his own Christ Myth position fall? Rook understates when he earlier describes his position as the “underdog.” The truth is that his position isn’t even on the scholarly map.
The main problem is that we have many references to Jesus (further information here and here) from secular sources, as well as the gospels. The truth, as Rook (a historian by his own admission) knows, is that credible historians do not advance the opinion that Jesus never existed. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary. I propose that it is the Christ Myth hypothesis that must ignore evidence and employ dishonesty.
Rook closes by saying that either Jesus is a fictional character, or He suffers from multiple personality disorder. He has shown this admirably with the Historic Jesus hypothesis, but has failed to show it with the Historic Christ hypothesis. In light of the many problems with his own position, and that he has failed to show a single tenable problem with the Historic Christ hypothesis, it must be concluded that the Historic Christ hypothesis is a much better alternative to either the Historic Jesus or Christ Myth hypotheses. The Historic Christ hypothesis, therefore, must be the truth behind all of these gospels.