At the very heart of Christianity is Christ. Remove Christ, and you no longer have Christianity. Thus those wanting to attack Christianity concentrate their heaviest firepower on Christ. And we have seen plenty of examples of that recently.
One way to attack Jesus is to attack the four canonical Gospels in which he appears. Parts of modern scholarship have been quite busy in distorting and misrepresenting the Gospels. They do this by questioning the Gospel accounts themselves, by speaking of other gospel traditions, by claiming there were alternative Christianities at the time, and so on.
In its more popular form this assault on Jesus comes out in such works of fiction as The Da Vinci Code. But it also comes out in more scholarly avenues, such as the Jesus Seminar. This volume examines all of these approaches, and finds them wanting. Indeed, Evans says the scepticism about Jesus and the Gospels betrays a “misplaced faith and misguided suspicions”.
Craig Evans is well placed to undertake this task. He is a leading New Testament scholar, specialising in the historical Jesus and the Jewish background of the New Testament era. Here he takes head on the various challenges to the Jesus of history and the Gospel accounts.
Consider the reliability of the Gospels. As with all ancient documents, they need to be assessed. We need to know how trustworthy they are as sources for learning about the historical events surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus. Over the years such tests have been developed. We refer to them as the “criteria of authenticity”. These are historical and literary criteria for assessing biblical literature.
One such criterion is that of multiple attestation. If we find a saying or teaching of Jesus that appears in two or more independent sources, that makes it more likely that they were circulated widely and early, and were not the invention of a single writer. And such is what we find in the New Testament documents.
Another is the criterion of embarrassment. This states that material that is potentially embarrassing or awkward for the early church is less likely to have been invented by believers after the Easter event. For example, given what a low view of women first century Judaism had, it seems strange indeed that the first people to report the resurrection of Jesus were women. Someone making up this story would surely not have chosen women, whose testimony was considered to be almost nil.
The various criteria taken together show that the four Gospels indeed have a high degree of authenticity and reliability. Says Evans, “Criteria of authenticity, which are remarkably vigorous in their application to the Gospels, confirm the essential core of Jesus’ teaching”.
Evans next looks at some of the other so-called gospels, the alternative gospels to the four canonical ones. Evans notes how the critics apply overly harsh and stringent tests for the reliability of the four Gospels, but when it comes to these alternative gospels, they approach them with kid gloves, giving them almost a free ride. Moreover, while they try to push the canonical Gospels to late dates, they are happy to give early authorship dates for these extracanonical writings.
Evans says the critics should show some consistency here, and apply the same standards to these new gospels as they do to the more traditional ones. Take for example the Gospel of Thomas. Liberal scholars tend to uncritically accept this as an early and legitimate gospel. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
As to dating, the four Gospels were all written within decades of the life of Jesus. Mark was penned in the 60s, Matthew and Luke in the late 70s, and John in the mid-90s. All of the alternative gospels however are dated to the second century and into the third. Thomas for example was written around A.D.180, perhaps later.
Moreover, it reads completely different from the four canonical Gospels. It is not really a gospel or biography at all, but a collection of sayings, reflecting a Gnostic, esoteric worldview. Says Evans, it clearly does not offer us “independent material that can be used for critical research into the life and teaching of Jesus”.
After examining other pseudo-gospels, he moves on to various aspects of theological revisionism about the life of Christ. For example, was Jesus – as some claim – in fact a Mediterranean Cynic? Did he really view himself as the Messiah? What about his healings and miracles? How did he view the Judaism of his day? In all these areas, Evans argues that the traditional (biblical) understanding of Jesus is to be preferred to the new, more radical and speculative accounts.
He concludes by arguing that the traditional Gospel accounts of Jesus may be old, but they are reliable. In contradistinction to the “newer, radical, minimalist, revisionist, obscurantist and faddish versions of the Jesus story,” the traditional one is both more convincing and more in tune with the historical and literary evidence.