Are Historical Christian Writings Fairly Evaluated?

First of all, cultural myths and oral histories are assumed to have some seed of historical truth. For example Irish legends dating back to the middle ages tell of magical and powerful races that inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Gaels. Scholars consider this to be how that culture “remembered” historical waves of migration on the island. Also stories of Mesopotamian gods and patriarchs (such as Cain and Abel) record the rivalry between the farmer and the herder. In other words it seems to be generally accepted that the mythological stories so important to ancient cultures have some basis in historical fact, thought the details may be lost.

The exception seems to be New Testament scholarship. Stories such as the Magi, the census in Luke, and the resurrection are seen as simple fabrications. There is no assumption that these “legends” might have a historical basis where the details are simply lost. The assumption seems to be that the Gospels have cobbled together a series of fabrications, unless of course the exact details are found in other (preferably) non-Christian sources.

This brings me to my questions: Am I recognizing a real bias? Are early Christian writings really evaluated by a different standard than writings from other cultures and other religions? Or am I seeing things through a filter created by my beliefs?  I am an amateur and have no formal training in New Testament scholarship, so I am not familiar with the various schools of thought. Is this causing me to find a bias where none exists?

You ask a very interesting question.  My first impression is to answer no on “bias” in New Testament scholarship, but my second thought is to agree with you on at least one area of bias.

My reason for denying a bias such as you suggest is that I hold a different standard of truthfulness for the New Testament history than the one you suggest.  You imply that as long as the New Testament stories have a kernel of truth somewhere back in the mists of oral transmission, then Christianity “may” be true at heart.  The New Testament writers themselves had a different level of historicity in mind when they sought to put down the events that had occurred in writing.  Luke is especially clear at the beginning of his two-volume work (The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles).  “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).

Peter was also very clear that he was reporting true history and not legends.  “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).  Professor Bart Ehrman regards this kind of “verisimilitude” in an ancient writing as evidence that it was not written by the one who is claiming to have written it.  For Professor Ehrman, this kind of personal touch in a claim to eyewitness status is a give-away of the forgery.  I will return to this view below.  For now, I simply want to clarify that the consistent assumption of the New Testament authors is that they were writing about what really happened.

Paul, too, insists that the core events of the Christian message—the death, burial, resurrection, and reappearance of Jesus of Nazareth—are not only significant; they are also verifiably true.  “He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [died]” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).  (See John 19:35 and 21:35 for that apostle’s equal insistence on historical accuracy from one who witnessed the events being reported.)

So, my first inclination is to answer your question by saying that the New Testament critics are not being unfair in denying legend status on oral stories behind and before the written documents.  They understand that such a view of truth was foreign to the Hebrew world and life view out of which the New Testament was born.  The New Testament documents should be judged on their own merits as either reporting true events or fabrications.  They themselves clearly claim to be historical accounts and not late memories of tales of mythological importance.

But here is where my second instinct for answering your question kicked in.  Many New Testament scholars do indeed seem to have a bias against New Testament “history” as being unworthy of that name.  They seem to hold the New Testament documents to a different standard of reliability than they hold classical documents to.  F.F. Bruce, professor of New Testament at the University of Manchester in England a generation ago, wrote an excellent introduction to the historicity of the New Testament documents that has never to my mind been refuted by other New Testament scholars.  He did see a bias in the evaluation of the New Testament documents in Religion Departments at universities that he did not see in Classics or History Departments.  By the standards employed in the latter departments, the New Testament documents come off looking much stronger in their claims to historical reliability than the accepted documents of ancient Greek and Roman history, and yet no one disputes the basic trustworthiness of these sources for conveying the gist of what happened.

The New Testament makes claims of theological truth about the divinity of Jesus and miracles he allegedly performed, but prior to any conclusion about those claims one must determine the likelihood that there even was a Jesus of Nazareth and that he did and said the things that are reported about him primarily in the New Testament documents.  What I am asserting is that Professor Ehrman and many other Religion professors are introducing unreasonable doubt about the historicity of the New Testament accounts (as opposed to the “reasonable doubt” standard employed in our judicial system).  I close with Professor Bruce’s conclusion: “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence.  The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.  It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories” (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?).

David Bowen, PhD
Vanderbilt University