Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Accuracy and Reliability of the New Testament Gospels?

Why do so many scholars hold so strongly that the New Testament Gospels, particularly the Mark, Matthew and Luke, are more accurate and reliable for reconstructing history than the non-canonical when it was proven by Professor Wrede in 1902 (The Messianic Secret) that the author of Mark was a theologian not an historian? The New Testament Gospels (and the apocryphal Gospels) are not histories, nor are they even historiographies. They are theological treatises whose main interests are Christological.

The New Testament texts don't have anymore intrinsic reliability for reconstructing the "historical" Jesus and Christian origins, than early non-canonical texts. The virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke are no less legendary and fanciful than the account found in the Infancy Gospel of James. The miracle stories of Jesus in the four New Testament Gospels are no less fantastic than those performed by the child Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The passion narratives in the New Testament are no less contrived in order to "prove" that Jesus' suffering and death had fulfilled the Scripture than the crucifixion narrative in the Gospel of Peter. The account of the pre-existence of Jesus in the first chapter of John is no less mythical than the accounts of his pre-existence in the Gospel of Truth. The reports of the miraculous deeds of Peter, Paul and Philip in the New Testament Acts are no more reliable than their deeds recorded in the apocryphal Acts which bear their names. The wild apocalyptic story in Revelation is no more an account of the end of our world than equally wild descriptions found in the visions of the Pastor Hermas or the Apocalypse of Peter. The sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are no more the verbatim words of Jesus than those recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, or the Secret Book of James. They are just more familiar to us because they have been part of the Christian tradition for so long. Has familiarity been mistaken for historicity?


Judy Redman said...

You say "The New Testament texts don't have anymore intrinsic reliability for reconstructing the "historical" Jesus and Christian origins, than early non-canonical texts" and ask "Has familiarity been mistaken for historicity?" I wonder if it's at least as much about faith/orthodoxy?

By definition, the NT Gospels are more accurate and reliable for reconstructing the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith. If a scholar's faith tradition has labeled them "right" for nearly two millennia, that has to influence how the scholar regards them in all contexts, not just theological ones. Extrinsic authority comes into play here, too, I think, albeit, perhaps, unconsciously.

Is there a difference, I wonder, between reconstructing Christian origins and reconstructing the "historical" Jesus?

April DeConick said...

Hi Judy,

Yes, I think that their canonicity - that they have been used as "the" definitive texts to understand the Christian faith for nearly two millennia - has been the main reason that they have continued to control the "historical" reconstruction of early Christianity and Jesus. Certainly they are some of our earliest texts, but some of the non-canonical materials come from the New Testament period too (i.e., Gospel of Thomas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas...). It may be that some of the non-canonical materials (even later ones) contain valuable sources from an earlier period, or they may show us earlier traditions that have been modified later by the early church. I think that all of the early Christian materials need to be approached with reserve and skepticism regarding what they might tell us about "history."

Phil Snider said...

Dr. McConick is right, of course. No one can deny that the NT Gospels are concerned not so much with history as theology. And, of course, they derive their authority from their canonicity. The Church, in identifying them as canonical, is making a statement, among other theological concerns, about the reliability of these accounts for the life of Jesus and for the early Christian church (which, I don't think can be separated).

As someone writing in the orthodox Christian tradition, I have no problem with that because I believe that the early church had the resources to make that determination, so I'm willing to trust that. I don't, necessarily, expect any one else to do so without argument, but, as an operating assumption, I'm willing to go that far.

The reason why I'm not particularly concerned about this is that I'm not, frankly, interested in the whole 'historical' Jesus and myth of Christian origin issues because they are as much a product of the post-Enlightenment concept of history in rather a Rankean sense that I actually accept. Imposing that particular concept of history is anachronistic, so the Gospel's alleged failure to be history in this form doesn't bother me.

Of course, the Gospels don't fall under the aegis of ancient historiography either. Yes, Luke nods at the conventions of historiography in his preface and so does, to a degree, John's insistence that he is merely correcting earlier accounts. Yet, they aren't histories nor are the interested in being histories. It is we moderns and post-moderns who want to read them that way.


Simon Gathercole said...


On the subject of Wrede "proving" that Mark was a theologian not a historian... Well, I'm afraid I hardly find any other NT scholars these days operating with such an either/or dichotomy. (In your own work on Thomas, you tend to show more distaste for either/or solutions...!)

In fact, Wrede - in a letter to Harnack, I think - later changed his mind about the fundamental question of the Messianic secret: see Hans Rollmann / Werner Zager (Hg.): Unveröffentlichte Briefe William Wredes zur Problematisierung des messianischen Selbstverständnisses Jesu, in: ZNThG 8 (2001) 274-322 [299-302. 315-317].

As for the Synoptics being no more reliable than Dial. Sav. or Secret James... Well, I know the genre of the blog lends itself better to hyperbole than the monograph, but that's a bit hard to swallow, isn't it?

best wishes as ever!

Simon (Gathercole)

April DeConick said...

Hi Simon,

No I don't think so. The gospels do not record the actual words of the "historical" Jesus. Nor do the Gospel of Thomas or the Dialogue of the Savior. What they record are "memories" remembered through the present needs of that particular Christian community. All our gospels come from at least thirty years after Jesus' ministry. None of them preserves his exact words. Why is this idea so troubling?

As for my either/or dichotomy. I think here you are wrong. No matter what my personal faith may be, it cannot come to bear on my historical reconstruction of Jesus or early Christianity. This is a dichotomy that I will maintain in order to preserve the rigor of the historical approach.

Now whether we might recover shards of "history" (what actually happened) within the theology of the gospels, well that is another story, and a tough methodological question that remains unresolved. I tend to think it is possible, but we must proceed with caution, aware at all times of our own personal theologies so that we do not prejudice our reconstructions with them. I know that the quest for history is a subjective process, but that doesn't mean to me that it has to be theological too.

April DeConick said...


I love your statement, "they aren't histories nor are the interested in being histories. It is we moderns and post-moderns who want to read them that way." I couldn't agree with you more. But what does this mean, however, when we try to recover "history" from them? Is it possible? I tend to think we can get a bits and pieces of history, but it is not easy, and thus my concern for an uncompromising historical method.

Michael F. Bird said...

Building on what Simon says, you can't cry out "Wrede" and think you have a slam dunk on any historical kernel benneath the Gospels. I think reality is little bit more complex than that. Also, if we find ideological currents or religious viewpoints embedded in Julius Caesar's Bello Gallico are we to assume that the entire work is 'mythic', there was no Helvetic campaign, Caesar never crossed the Rubicon, and the work constitutes the ideological propaganda of a Caesarean community? Even Arrian portrays Alexander as a 'divine man' - what are we to make of the value of his work for reconstructing the life of Alexander? What historian says "I see some ideology here, therefore, the entire work is historically useless?".

Cordially yours

April DeConick said...

Did I ever say that there might not be historical fragments there too? These texts are not historigraphies, they are theologies. How we get at the possible "history" in them is exactly the problem that we biblical historians face every day. Read my response to Simon.

Phil Snider said...

It should explain my comment about the Gospels not being history. What I mean by that is that the Gospels do not conform to the genres of either modern historiography nor of ancient historiography. That does not mean that they aren't intended to give a true narrative of the events of Jesus of Nazareth's life. It means they go about it differently than the more strictly historical genres allow.

That, of course, means that historians have to proceed with caution with the Gospels, not merely because of theological presumptions (including, I note, the argument that the Gospels should be analysed without theological presumptions--this is a statement about the place of God in history or lack thereof).

Now, when it comes to brass tacks, what does this mean? I would suggest that the Bible is a truthful narrative from which we can find the historical outline we need for Jesus' life. I adopt that position because I believe its authority is based upon eye-witness testimony (which, I note, was the primary proof for ancient historiography, even it is denigrated in modernist historiography). I also grant that this is related to my theological position, so would be difficult to defend in the face of determined critique which assumes a rather different conception of the early church. We then get into the whole nature of the early Church debate and can argue ourselves into circle ad nauseum or ad infinitum, if necessary.

Now, that said, despite our different assumptions about these subjects, there is no substitute for just simple historical grunt work. Nor is a rigourous historical method merely the preserve of a 'humanist' model. Scholars are right, of course, (as you do in your most recent post) to call into question errors or perceived errors which this or that scholar makes due to their theological assumption, but, then, they would be right to do the same to the person critisizing. This is rather a more dialectic model than I intend, but there is something in the give and take which makes us all better historians and better scholars--professional and amateur alike.

Phil said...

The true history of the original Christians (anointed ones?) just has to be obfuscated in the writings attributed to Josephus. But how do professional historians typically handle these texts? Referring to them (page 3 of her book on Vespasian) Dr Barbara Levick states: “there is a particularly thick overlay of propaganda that obscures the truth about the Jewish War”. Then she later admits that much of her book is heavily dependent on the those writings. So what does she do? Like most interpreters of Josephus, she simply proceeds to take a literalist approach and makes no attempt to specify what she believes is under that ‘thick overlay of propaganda’. said...

Eisenbrauns is selling a book Other Christian Gospels by Andrew E. Bernhard, but I can't trace author.

Who is Andrew Eric Bernhard?

April DeConick said...


Here is the direct link to his book with a good description of it. He has edited some of the Oxyrhynchos papyri while working at Oxford on his master's degree in Greek.

Other Early Christian Gospels