Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Matter of Evidence: Thoughts for Easter

No, the last post was not an April Fool's joke.  I did not like writing it, but it is a part of how I got to where I am today.  But I do have a post for Easter Sunday.  In the past week Andrew Sullivan, a much more known blogger than I am, wrote about the need to get back to Jesus--the real Jesus, not what the church has made of him.  He cited Thomas Jefferson's attempt to cut out all the parts of the New Testament that he thought did not belong there.  But in fact, this actually impedes finding out the truth about Jesus.

I studied under a professor who had done a master's degree thesis on the comparison of the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth and Alexander the Great.  He gave a lecture on that topic every year in his class on New Testament Introduction.  I do not have a copy of his thesis, nor his footnotes, but I am going to give a brief overview of the matter here.

Alexander lived in the fourth century B.C. and Jesus was on earth in the first century A.D.  Nobody now living on the earth was present in either period, and there are no scientific "experiments" that can be performed to determine what happened back then, so all we can go by is the historical evidence.  And this primarily means the written evidence; archeology is limited to study of artifacts that survive to modern times, and is mostly about general conditions, not specific individuals.  So let's look at some of the written evidence.

For Jesus, the primary sources on His life are the four Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The traditions of the early church say that Mark wrote first and John wrote last.  Of the four, Matthew and John were part of the inner group of Jesus' disciples, "the Twelve."   They were eyewitnesses of what happened.  Mark was apparently younger; he may have witnessed some of the events he recorded, but he is also named as an associate of Peter, another of the Twelve, and could have learned from him as an eyewitness like Matthew and John.  Luke was a Gentile rather than a Jew, and became a Christian later than the others, but his travels with Paul (including to Jerusalem) would have made it possible for him to access the eyewitnesses also.

For Alexander, there were first-hand accounts written after his death, including one by Ptolemy, one of his generals who ended up ruling Egypt. But none of those eyewitness accounts have survived to the present time.  Even the second-hand accounts that relied on those eyewitnesses have not survived.  All that we have about Alexander the Great is third- and fourth-hand accounts based on the earlier reports. One that some scholars consider the best is Arrian, a Greco-Roman historian from the second century A.D. (almost 500 years after Alexander's death!)

What about the quality of the work in passing on these accounts?  There was no printing press, so all copies had to be handwritten by scribes.  How accurate were those scribes, and how much did survive?  On Alexander, it is pretty bleak: what we have is a small number of manuscripts; the earliest date from the Middle Ages, hundreds of years later than Arrian's writing and even farther from Alexander's day.

For the Gospels, we do not have the originals, the "autographs" as scholars call them.  But we do have literally thousands of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament accumulated over the centuries before printing started.  There are complete or nearly complete New Testaments from the 300s, and portions and fragments that are even older.  It has been fashionable in some circles for the last couple of hundred years to claim that the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts, but were composed a couple of hundred years later, and incorporated myths and legends that had grown up by then.  This is one area where the archeologists have dug the ground out from under their feet:  years ago a papyrus fragment containing part of John's Gospel was found in Egypt.  It was dated to about 125 A.D., within fifty years of the traditional date of its writing, and on the opposite side of the Mediterranean Sea from where John wrote.  And in the last couple of months news leaked out that a fragment of Mark's  Gospel has been found that dates to the first century!  The "hundreds of years later" claim does not hold water.

But how good were those scribes at copying accurately?  Actually, very good.  There is a science called Textual Criticism that looks at these manuscripts, comparing them to each other, looking for the scribal errors and variations.  They can often tell which later manuscript was copied as part of a chain going back to a specific one of the oldest ones, because the variations got passed on down the chain.  But these variations do not add up to much.  Out of the entire New Testament, all the disputed and questionable passages put together add up to about half a page--that's all!  And no major doctrine of the New Testament is affected by those questionable passages.

The truth is, the church scribes were very accurate, all things considered.  What they were doing was an important part of their faith, and they took pains to do it right.  The Jewish scribes were just as good:  one of the results from study of the Dead Sea Scrolls was how little difference there was between the Scrolls and the later Hebrew copies of the Old Testament.

As for the claim that "myths and legends" grew up and were incorporated into the Gospels, the archeological evidence now has cut the available time too short; the evidence is too strong that all four Gospels were written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses (In I Corinthians Paul wrote that there were 500 hundred people who saw the Risen Christ at one incident, and most of them were still alive when he wrote that).

The other evidence is in the writing style of the Gospels themselves:  They do not read like "myths and legends," but like matter-of-fact reportage.  In a paper delivered at Cambridge University in 1959, C. S. Lewis (his academic field was medieval literature) wrote about John chapter 8:
"I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage--though it no doubt may contain errors--pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell [companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson in the 1700s].  Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."

From "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" published in "The Seeing Eye" (1967) and later in "Christian Reflections" in 1994.

We have better evidence for the life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth than we do for Alexander the Great, or nearly any other figure of ancient history.  Some people may not like the evidence, or the conclusions it leads to.  But that is another issue.  But we live in the real world, not anyone's fantasy world, and sooner or later we must face up to The God Who Is There rather than the god we wish was there.

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