|THE RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
For the past 150 years in the Western world the question has been repeatedly raised as to whether the Gospel narrative of Christ can be considered historical. In the middle of the 19th century Bruno Bauer even went as far as to deny the historicity of Jesus himself. But the myth question really came to a head in the years 1910-11 when the Professor of Philosophy at Karlsruhe A. Drews published his Die Christusmythe (The Christ-Myth), in which he claimed that it was a "complete mistake" to think of the development of the Christian church as having its origin in a historical character, Jesus.
It often turns out, however, that negative claims give a healthy change of direction to the whole discussion. And so it was that the leading lights of the Mythical School (Karlhoff, Robertson, Smith, Jensen, and Drews) found their claims contested from a quite unexpected corner, by two of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the day. Leo Baeck published his On the Christ-Myth question in which he showed that the credibility of the Christian faith stands or falls according to whether Christ was a historical character or not, whereas Judaism, for example, could get along even without Moses. He added that Christians would be in a much stronger position to address the whole question if they were familiar with the "soil from which Christianity had grown". Still more noteworthy was Stockholm Chief Rabbi Gottlieb Klein's slim volume Is Jesus a historical character?, originally published in German. The once highly respected Professor Gösta Lindeskog, who, to my mind, has written the best work on Jewish Jesus-research,6 told of how this little book of Klein's was the determining stimulus to his life's work, to the extent that in the Germany of the 1930's he was continually harassed on account of his love for the Jews. This same little volume was for me too a decisive experience at the beginning of my student life, resulting in a regular study of Judaism. Klein said that for 30 years he had unstintingly studied the NT, and could on that basis,
Klein devotes most attention to Jesus' ways of teaching and to the historical background which is so unaffectedly presented in the NT. The Israeli master of dialogue, Professor Martin Buber, once said that Klein knew the literature of the second Temple period better than any of his contemporaries. The Jewish scholar understands more readily than others that Jesus is no myth and that there is nothing mythical about his ideas. Nevertheless, the idea that the New Testament was essentially mythical lay smouldering, and finally burst into flames in another form. Post-war theological debate in Germany was dominated by Rudolf Bultmann, who wished to rescue Christianity by purging it of all that was mythical in nature, offering in its place the church's 'preaching of faith', the kerygma. Although it does not always have support from the real historical Jesus, this endeavour, as it stands, has wielded a certain influence on the subsequent development of theology in that the belief of "the Church" and the "act of salvation " experienced by the congregation gradually began to receive emphasis. Jewish Professor David Flusser has often stressed that there is something rather strange in such an approach:
David Flusser, who lectures NT in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wonders how it would have been possible for a group of uncertain disciples, rent with internal strife, suddenly in their committee work to have come to much of an agreement about Jesus -- something decisive must have happened in the interim. With the idea of the NT's mythical nature still firmly lodged in scholars' minds, and when the general opinion reigns that religious use of language requires mythical dress, it is difficult to demonstrate such characteristics actually existing in the teaching of Christ or in the preaching of the Apostles. As we have seen, Jewish exegesis is governed by two main features: the Halakha, prescriptions pertaining to the individual's 'daily walk' before God; and the Haggada, 'stories, legends', attempts to describe as accurately as possible events and happenings. The greater the distance from the Bible's own soil the more pure fiction started to come in to the latter feature. In the OT and NT narratives it is not in evidence at all.
On the contrary, the Midrash character of the NT is typical of the common goal of Jewish exegesis, in which the Sage tries to show all the possible aspects of his subject without forgetting that, "The word of God never loses its specific meaning".9 The care to be taken when discussing the Haggada or particular problem is increased by the fact that the Rabbis were fond of investigating in turn its different facets or middoth - 'proportions': Rabbi Aqiba loved "amplification and limitation"; R. Ishmael Ben Elisha, who also lived in the 2nd century, interpreted on the basis of "generalisation and specification;"10 R. Hillel had 7 points of departure; R. Ishmael 13; some others, as we have seen, had 32, 49 or even 70 ways of interpreting Scripture. Nothing was to be lightly handled, without any forethought. We shall see that even Jesus used those same Midrash techniques which dominated Jewish exegesis. The Rabbis often repeated the saying that "Truth is the seal of the Divine". Without a doubt the NT is also governed by this same striving for truth.
It is understandable that Christian Biblical interpretation and the goals set by Jewish scholars should differ. The Christian "pushes" Christ, and the Jew that which will promote the Torah. The arguments which the Christian draws from the OT are, as they stand, unconvincing to the Jews. The Talmud emphasises that, "The words of the Wise are more important even than those of the Prophets",11 and that, "He who repeats the words of his Rabbi repeats, as it were, the words of the Holy Spirit".12 If a Christian, however, should state some unscriptural opinion it will be immediately rejected. For this reason the Christian ought to speak about Jesus' possible Messiahship from the basis of both the OT and the oral tradition.
The word 'critical', from the Greek kritikos, is a concept quite alien to the Rabbinic thought world. Jewish thought does not take as its starting point the idea that phenomena should be criticised or condemned beforehand, a way in which, incidentally, every historical event could be invalidated. The Jew usually "listens" with his aural discerning faculty to determine whether the essence of the matter is in accordance with the basic laws of life. For this reason the Talmud presents a subject in the light of various scholars and traditions, and only after long discussion does it draw conclusions. There is even the possibility that, "we will reveal features in the Torah which are not in accordance with the prevailing Halakha".13
The concept "truth" appears over 100 times in the NT. In Hebrew the corresponding word emet contains the first, middle, and final letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- truth is dependable in its every part. The Gospel was entrusted to "reliable men". They strove to "hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught". Luke "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" so that "how certain" the groundwork of the Gospels is would be made clear. And the Apostle Paul twice declared that, "This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance". It would be rather strange for any distortion of the truth to take root in this kind of soil. Jesus himself asked in his High Priestly Prayer, "Father, sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth".
Christians today are beginning to become aware of the fact that the skeptical stance of liberal theology has called almost everything Jesus said into question. This skepticism is founded on literary criticism, source criticism with its various theories, redaction criticism, and a variety of analyses with their accompanying hypotheses. The study of method attempts further to criticise the degree of certainty of even these conclusions. This all sounds very scientific, but when we consider that the preliminary form of the Gospels was, it would appear, written in Hebrew, and that the Greek versions were made in the presence of a "shadow writer", it is hardly possible for literary criticism of any kind to pry into their secrets. Similarly, Paul, because of his shortsightedness, had to use many different amanuenses, which means effectively that nothing reliable can be distilled from his writings either by these methods. Jewish scholars often have an intuitive ability to sense what is "Made in Israel", and so their opinions are usually much more positive than those of Western theoreticians.
The Jews have a long tradition of recording the Holy Scriptures. As early as Samuel's time we read that "the LORD was with him. . . and let none of his words fall to the ground". The good pupil of a Rabbi is "like a whitewashed well which leaks not a drop".14 Not the minutest change was to be made to Holy Writ, nothing "added" and nothing "taken away", as the book of Revelation warns us.15
When the Jewish professor Josef Klausner in his time was assessing the trustworthiness of the NT, he quoted Rousseau, who said, "My friend, such things are not invented!" "Facts about Socrates," Rousseau continued, "whose existence no-one doubts, are on a much weaker basis than those which tell about Jesus of Nazareth". "It would be much more difficult to construe that several men had joined together to compile this book than that one man had been the sorce of its material . . . The character of the Gospels is so perfectly inimitable, that if it had been the invention of men, the inventors would be greater than the hero himself."16 A man's teachings are always a cross-section of his spiritual and moral level. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus is inimitable.
There is a Latin proverb which goes, Ex nihilo nihil fit, or 'nothing comes from nothing'. When a stone is thrown into a pond it causes ripples to move out in every direction. It is the same in history. The events of the NT by their very nature are reflected in the chronicles of the Roman world. These scattered references to Jesus and the first Christians do not, it is true, add anything to the picture given by the NT, but they do in their own way lend support to our faith in the basic trustworthiness of the records of these events.
Christianity through the eyes of the early historians.
We do not have any specific knowledge of the correspondence of Procurator Pontius Pilate with the Emperor. Although Justin Martyr, writing around the year 150 AD, mentions some "documents" of this kind, nothing has ever been found.17 There is no other correspondence between the governor of Judea and the Roman ruler available. On the other hand certain Roman writers and historians have recorded scattered mentions of the early Christians.
In 49 AD the emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome because
of some local disturbances. Acts 18:2 mentions that Aquilla and his wife
Priscilla left Italy as a result of this persecution and came to Corinth.
In the second decade of the second century the historian SUETONIUS wrote
in his "Lives of the Caesars":
The Roman historian CORNELIUS TACITUS, born ca. 50 AD, writes in 116 AD in his "Annals", regarding the Great Fire of Rome:
The beginning of the second Christian century also saw the activity of a writer whose correspondence with the emperor Trajan and his contemporary rulers shows a rare literary talent. PLINY, whose 10 well-preserved books also contain his ongoing discussion in 111 AD with the Emperor, sheds light on the nature of the first Christians. PLINY had been sent to govern Bithynia having previously been the Chief Magistrate in the City of Rome. One year after his investiture he wrote a detailed statement regarding the Christians, who had been accused of criminal offences. He asked for instructions as to how he should question and judge the accused. Should he be as strict with the young, the aged and the women as with the men? He had actually asked them three times if they were Christians, warning them of the punishment that entailed. Only then had he condemned them to death. In one case he tortured two maidens who were called "deaconesses", but had found them guilty of no greater crime than their "warped superstition". They did not pose any threat to the state. Pliny had heard that "these Christians cannot be made to invoke the gods or worship images even if compelled to do so." It also appeared that they were "in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before sunrise and reciting an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and binding themselves with an oath -- not to commit any crime, but to abstain from all acts of theft, robbery and adultery, from breaches of faith, from repudiating a trust when called upon to honour it". In his rather wordy letter Pliny tells us further that "this contagious superstition" had not only spread through the cities, but also through the villages and the countryside", and that the temples had begun to empty of people. He therefore asks the Emperor for further instructions.
Trajan answered that Pliny had proceeded correctly in his interrogations, but Christians were on no account to be punished on the basis of anonymous accusations: "This will only form a very bad precedent, quite unworthy of the age in which we live".21 We know that these instructions provided guidelines for the attitudes of officials to Christians in Asia Minor for a considerable period of time.
The beginning of Peter's first letter testifies to the spread of the gospel as far as Bithynia, in which the letter was received by "God's elect, strangers in the world". Their number included those who were "scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia". It is instructive to note that John A.T. Robinson dates 2 Peter at around 61-2 AD and 1 Peter in the Spring of 65 AD. We see from Pliny's description that church life at the beginning of the second century was organised to the extent that ecclesiastical officebearers such as deaconesses had been given their duties; Christians were known for their blameless lives; Idolatry was abandoned wherever the new faith spread. The account in Acts of the day of Pentecost mentions that Peter's audience was made up of pilgrims from "Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia (Minor), Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome". Jewish professor David Flusser has drawn attention to the fact that these specific areas were populated mainly by tax-paying Jewish emigr+s. We have also already seen that there were large numbers of Christians in Rome around AD 50.
The Samarian-born historian THALLUS, who wrote a complete history of the Near-East from the Trojan war to his own time, also made reference to Christ. In the third volume of his work he argues that the darkness which surrounded the crucifixion of Christ was the result of an eclipse of the sun. However, since Jesus was crucified at full moon, when no eclipse of the sun is possible, this explanation is somewhat unconvincing. We know that even though the motions of the stars were precisely plotted thousands of years before Jesus' time it was not until Copernicus, active at the beginning of the 16th century, and the observations of Kepler, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, gave us our heliocentric worldview that the lunar motions were also understood. Most important, however, is to notice that a contemporary historian was intrigued by the death of Christ as early as ca. 52 AD, when THALLUS wrote his magnum opus.
More than from any other work we know of the history of the time of the second temple from the writings of FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS. Born around 37 AD in Jerusalem his biography must be one of the world's most colourful and exciting. At the age of 13 he became a pupil of the Rabbis in Jerusalem. At 16 he took upon himself the life of a desert ascetic for three years under the guidance of Banus, an Essene. He tried out Phariseeism, Sadduceeism and Essenism "desiring", in his own words, "to chose from them which was best". At 20 he went to Rome, where he took part in the political intrigues of the day. On coming back to Palestine he was caught up in the internal struggles for power among the Jews and, ultimately, in the rebellion against the Romans. While functioning as the leader of a countermovement in Galilee he fled to the cave of Jotapata in which, completely surrounded, he and his men decided by unanimous vote to commit suicide. Josephus was to have been the last to kill himself, but instead he gave himself up to the Romans. He quickly gained the favour of Vespasian and his son Titus and agreed to persuade the Jews to give up their revolt. It was not long, of course, before he was considered a traitor to his country. It seems, however, that he had some genuine affection for his kinsmen: when Titus once in Tekoa gave orders for three Jews to be crucified Josephus pleaded with tears for their pardon. Despite his lack of personal integrity Josephus has earned for himself a place in history by his detailed record of the events of his time.
Very little is known of the history of Palestine between the years 150 BC and 70 AD. Josephus, on coming to Rome, began his Bellum Iudaicum or 'Wars of the Jews', which was published in 77 AD. This work is an account of the time from Antiochus Epiphanes ca. 170 BC right up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Later, in 93 AD, his 'Jewish History', Antiquitates Iudaicae, appeared, which presents first the events of the Old Testament in the light of History, and then Palestine's later phases, complete with intrigues, religious squabbles, not sparing even contemporary gossip. These two works, in the translations made from the Greek, comprise together 1800 pages. When we add to this his Autobiography, and, to mention but one other, the Contra Apionem, or the 'Polemics against Apion', the specific information he provides is of inestimable value. It must be admitted that the account he gives of events is frequently to his own advantage or in favour of Jewish attitudes, but such propaganda on behalf of his own people is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, he strove to record facts for future generations. Perhaps he is not always critical in the modern sense towards the objects of his study, but he had a unique vantage point from which to observe the religious and political events of his time.
Josephus' greatest bequest to us is the portrait gallery, he provides as part of his multifarious narrative. He describes several characters familiar to us from the New Testament, such as Herod, the Jerusalem priesthood, Pilate, Quirinius, Archelaus and even James "the brother of the one known as the Christ".
It should be borne in mind that Josephus was of important priestly descent and that from his youth he seems to have been considered something of a genius, gaon in Hebrew. Priests and leading personages in the city came to him for his opinions on the interpretation of the law while he was still a youth. In his autobiography he mentions that it was his memory in particular which amazed people. For this reason Josephus can generally be considered trustworthy. His interest in John the Baptist and in the person of Christ may spring from the fact that he had himself lived amongst the Essenes and knew the intense Messianic expectation of his time.
Mentions of John the Baptist
In the 5th sub-paragraph of book XVIII of the Antiquities of the Jews Josephus speaks of Herodias, the wife of Philip, brother of Herod Antipas. Herod had taken Herodias as his lover while on a trip to Rome. His legal wife, the daughter of the Arabian king Aretas, got wind of the matter and removed herself suddenly to the fortress of Makairos on the Eastern side of the Dead Sea. From there it was a short distance to her father's seat in Petra. Outraged by the rejection of his daughter King Aretas declared war on Herod. Herod received military assistance from the Syrian governor but, it would appear, still sustained heavy losses in the skirmishes which took place.
In his account of this situation Josephus explains that:
These 'Slavic variations', which have, it would seem, been influenced to some extent by original Aramaic sources, contain two descriptions of John the Baptist's unusual attire, made from the "skins of animals", and a mention of the fact that he drank no wine nor strong drink, neither ate animal flesh.24 Some critics believe there are references here to the Essenes, among whom Josephus himself spent three years.
The fate of John the Baptist apparently preoccupied the learned of Jesus' time. Gottlieb Klein in his work Is Jesus a historical person, published in 1910, cites a piece of Jewish tradition:
Josephus' disputed mention of Jesus
In the 3rd sub-paragraph of book XVIII of the Antiquities of the Jews Josephus introduces Jesus:
Josephus was perfectly capable of writing the much disputed reference to Jesus. It cannot, in the name of science, simply be ridiculed. As a historian he has also carried out an incomparable work, without which the religious and political life of Jesus' time would be without expression.
Comparison of the New Testament with the other literature of antiquity
When we place the prime literary source of the Christian faith, the New Testament, alongside the other surviving literary works of antiquity we immediately notice a great difference regarding the time between the original writing of a certain document and the earliest copies of it which are known to us. For example, the oldest extant manuscripts of the works of Sophocles were copied 1400 years after the author's death. With the works of Euripides the time difference is 1600 years, with Plato 1300 and Demosthenes 1200 years. Nevertheless, these works have not been subjected to the same degree of criticism as has the New Testament. The Roman poet Virgil is, by this standard, a rare exception in that the earliest preserved copy of his works was made only four centuries after his death.28
The oldest copies of some parts of the New Testament go back to a very early stage. There are some papyrus fragments of John's gospel which date from the year 125 AD.29 Similarly, more extensive fragments of John and also Luke and the letters of James and Paul have been found and dated to the 3rd century.30 The caves of Qumran have likewise yielded papyrus scraps of James, dating from 50-60 AD.31 Between the years 200-350 all the earliest copies of the NT can be found. Approximately 2500 old Greek manuscripts of the gospels have been preserved, of which more than 40 go well over a thousand years back. In addition to this the Church has approx. 1500 "guided readings", the lectionaries, in which the gospels are arranged in daily portions. From the earliest times the New Testament was translated into the Syriac dialects, into Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and of course into Latin. In some cases these translations are older than the earliest preserved Greek manuscripts: for example, one Coptic Theban version is from the 3rd century, and there are almost 8000 copies of the Latin Vulgate from the end of the 4th century. The manuscript known as the Codex Sinaiticus, which was found in 1844 in Sinai, may be one of the 50 copies which Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea had made in 331 AD for the emperor Constantine. Such a comparison shows the New Testament as able to stand alongside any whatever of the works of antiquity.
Although it is hardly justifiable nowadays to think of the words of Christ as having originally been disconnected logia, there may well have been more of these sayings which were left out of the New Testament. Paul quotes one when parting from his friends in Mileto; he tells them to remember "the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive"' (Acts 20:35). Many people also know the words of Jesus quoted by Origen: "He who is near me is near the fire, and who is far from me is far from the kingdom of God."
In the Christian literary tradition the difference between that which is genuine and that which is a forgery is so clear that the traditionally accepted books of the New Testament, the 'canon', were distinguishable at a fairly early stage from other material of a devotional or purely imaginary nature. Although the canon was not officially settled until the synods of Carthage and Hippo in 393 and 397 AD respectively, it took shape at a much earlier stage. In 1740 a certain collector by name of Muratori found an ancient document in Milan in which were listed the NT manuscripts considered Holy Writ by the church in Rome around 170-180 AD. Mention is made there of a spurious letter, known as the 'Shepherd of Hermas', that it is "too late and not of Apostolic origin". The Muratorian Canon gives approximately the same NT composition as that in use today: four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and 13 Pauline epistles. It says of the letters to Timothy and Titus that they are "generally accepted" as guides to ecclesiastical offices. The 3 letters of John and that of Jude also appear on the Muratorian list. John A.T. Robinson, whose book on the the dating of the NT will be dealt with later, conjectures that Jude assisted Peter in composing his second epistle and added to it some of the thoughts from his own letter, which were felt to be important from the Church's point of view. The date of composition of these much disputed letters is put by Robinson at 61-62 AD.
It is clear that the structure and compilation of the New Testament
are from as early as the middle of the second century. Historians cannot
expect from any religious movement a more rapid critical appraisal of its