Thursday, February 1, 2018

Corroborating the New Testament

This began as a letter to a friend, but ended up as an article intended for the non-theologian occasional reader who may have wondered whether the writings in the New Testament can be verified by extra-biblical sources.  That was the complaint of a friend citing a professor of religion from somewhere who proudly announced that there is no mention of Jesus in any first century Greek or Roman document, and therefore the New Testament cannot be corroborated.  Yeah?  So what.

It left me perplexed.  For one thing, there aren’t that many surviving texts from first century Greece or Rome, but that begs the question.  Why would first century Roman or Greek writers take note of Jesus in the first place?  If they heard of him at all, he would have been just another so called wonder worker wandering around the Levant.  Hardly worth writing about.  There were other self proclaimed messiahs and other crucifixions.  Why bother writing about Jesus?  Nevertheless, some did.  Late in the century Jesus is mentioned several times in passing in  Josephus’s histories of the Jews and the Jewish Wars.  You may recall that he was a Jewish warlord/general who was defeated by Vespian in 67 c.e., and wrote his tomes at Vespian’s behest.  By the start of the second century Christianity had become a major religion, a thorn in the side of Rome, and Jesus could no longer be ignored.  There’re a number of second century Roman citations about Jesus and Christians.  Easy to look up if interested.  

However, the main point is that the New Testament is, in a sense, self corroborating because it was written by different people at different times, each telling the story from a perspective not shared by the others.  It comes as a surprise to many that the New Testament as we know it was not handed down from heaven, was not written as a single book, developed over decades, and was assembled in the form we now have no earlier than the fourth century after years of debate about what was genuine scripture and what was not.  The various authors of the texts were brutally honest in that they weren’t shy about narrating the bad and ugly along with the good.  Take the gospels.  Mark, the first, written somewhere around 30 years after Jesus, is in rather basic Greek and tells a simple, direct story.  The writer of Matthew, written at least ten year later, was clearly Jewish, but with an educated command of Greek. He used almost all of Mark, but had other sources of his own, and another source to which the writer of Luke also had access.  Luke, written about the same time as Matthew, was a Greek, well educated, who admits he was not an eye witness, but was nevertheless determined to do the best he could gathering up verifiable stories about Jesus.  Like Matthew, he used most of Mark, added sources of his own, and had a third source known also to Matthew.  The three stories cannot be easily harmonized.  It’s like witnesses to and accident, each swearing to what they saw, but each telling it in a way that doesn’t agree in particulars with the others.  Just the same, together they form a mosaic of truth.  Finally, toward the end of the century, we get John, who may well have been an eye witness, knew about the other three, maybe read one or two of them, and was disinterested in telling the same story again.  His gospel is pure theology, even as it tells stories about Jesus that the others don’t.

So who were Mark, Matthew, Luke and John?  No one knows for sure.  The names have stuck for centuries, so why not keep using them.  It’s also important to remember that newly formed communities of Christian worship may have been aware of one gospel but not the others, that they heard it first through oral recitations, and that the bible as we know it would not exist for two more centuries.  

But wait!  There’s more!  The authentic letters of Paul were all written before any of the gospel narratives.  They’re the earliest Christian records.  Paul was beheaded in Rome by Nero in about 65 c.e. while other Roman Christians, and assorted unwanted types, were massacred in less humane ways.   His letters don’t tell the Jesus story, but they do advise struggling young congregations about how to live into this new faith with Jesus as their guide.  So, within the New Testament we have a variety of writers and sources that corroborate each other not unlike how a court room drama might play out as witnesses took the stand.


Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have a hard time with some of this because they want everything to be historically and literally true.  My guess is that my questioning friend got whatever she knows about Christianity them.  But that’s not how writers of the time worked.  They worked hard to tell the truth with whatever facts they had at their disposal, and added creative use of them to fill in the gaps.  We Anglicans, and most classical Christians, are certain that God’s hand inspired them in every way, but they were, after all, just human beings, and made mistakes.

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