As I said, see the second comment.
A falsehood doesn't become truth no matter how carefully it's preserved and distributed.
There are good reasons to place the reliability of the other writings above that of the New Testament. Among them is the fact that we generally know who the authors were (and in the case of Julius Caesar for instance, there are surviving contemporary likenesses of him on coins and statues). Another reason in some cases is the existence of other independent accounts of the same events written within thirty years of the events themselves. An obvious reason is the occurrence of physical events in the New Testament which cannot possibly be duplicated or tested today, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. (Most Christians, however, seem devoid of incredulity regarding these events, so this last reason isn't a great one to give believers.)
Setting all this aside, however, and assuming that accounts in the New Testament today are faithful to what its authors originally wrote, nothing prevents the accounts from having been false in the first place.
Sure enough, there are real places like Jerusalem and real people like Pontius Pilate. Forrest Gump met JFK in the White House, but that doesn't make Forrest Gump real.
The huge amount of surviving manuscripts is hardly surprising either. More than any secular historical document, the New Testament was made to be spread around. Even before the Gideons (and before hotel room drawers), there were groups and individuals who made the stories available to as many people as possible. The wording was critically important, as demonstrated by current theological debates over the meaning of single phrases or even words. Therefore accuracy was largely maintained, except when people intentionally skewed the meanings to suit them (for instance, in the New World Translation by the Jehovah's Witnesses).
In short, we have a book which huge numbers of people have seen as vitally important since before it was written. A book where every word is essential, a book everyone is meant to read. Its popularity flourished, its integrity was (mostly) safeguarded and it's still around today. Does that mean it contains the truth? No. It means we probably do know what some people really said happened 2000 years ago, and we still have to make up our own minds whether they were right.
I’ll do my best to answer your question as precisely (and concisely) as I can. It is said that historical and literary critical scholarship “is wissenshaft, not metaphysics.” That stands true for this article. I say that because these questions are not easy to answer and involve a little bit of scholarly elbow grease to really understand. First and foremost, there is no definitive answer to either of these questions (which we’ll get into), and all the information that we have is really evidence of how much we don’t know, not how much we know. So, when compiling the answers to these questions, scholars will generally be a little liberal with their speculations and more often then not they are answering with ‘Bible-colored glasses’—especially if you look at any monograph or historical critical book before the 1970’s. But, luckily for us and all literary critical and historical critical scholars everywhere, scholars finally started to remove those ‘Bible-colored glasses’ (See my new introduction to my book posted here).
Archaeological evidence and new methods of textual criticism has lead many scholars to reevaluate what they had originally thought about the dating and authorship of Biblical texts. For several hundred years, scholars had assumed the authenticity of the Bible narratives themselves, leading many to falsely assume that the original composition of the majority of the Bible was in Hebrew and Aramaic, leaving only the New Testament (for the most part) room to have been written in Koine, or common, Greek. But recently the authorship and composition dates have been challenged, and a new, more probable conclusion on these issues has led some scholars to question the composition language of the texts, most specifically in the Old Testament. Additionally, new finds at Qumran have allowed for a great deal of revisionist thinking on scribal methods and composition language. And finally, with fresh new perspectives on Diaspora life for both Jew and Gentile, these new revisionist ideas started to fit in more broadly to the conclusions of composition language, no longer allowing scholars (specifically on the conservative side) to take this vital subject for granted.
What is now being argued, specifically by the Copenhagen school, and the incredibly brilliant scholarship of Philip R. Davies, is that the original composition was not even in Hebrew, as was previous thought, but rather it was written in Greek. This revolutionary thinking is based on a lot of very fine research, and fits in quite well with the socio-cultural settings of Hellenistic Jews. Since we do not have any copies of the Old Testament, at least in the vein of a collected group of works such as the Torah, prior to the Hellenistic Age, and so many Jews during the Hellenistic period used the Septuagint, it leaves Davies conclusions in a very compelling position. It was assumed for a long time that the composition of the Greek Old Testament was ordered by a Greek King during the period to add to his extensive library, which is part of the reason many scholars in earlier decades believed that the Greek translation came later. But this story was eventually discovered to be a product of Jewish fiction. What we know from that period is that so many Jews wrote fictions (like the story above about the Greek King), and they did so writing them in true Hellenic fashion; that is, they wrote them in Greek.
To be clear, that is not to say that these traditions did not exist prior to the Hellenistic Age, Thomas Thompson has provided a good case for (and now the majority of Old Testament scholars agree) the dating of these traditions to the Persian period (538-323 BCE roughly), but up until the Hellenistic age, these stories were not compiled or written down. Because of the new government sponsored school systems called Gymnasium, many elite Jews and wealthy Jewish families who were politically sealed with the Greek rulers, were permitted (as citizens) to attend school and receive formal training in the art of literature composition, rhetoric, and philosophy. Part of this schooling was very dependant on using older narrative models to teach basic grammar. Using these literary models is a process called imitatio or imitation—a form of mimetic learning and eventually authorship. The foundational models used by practically all schools were the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. With these Greek epics, one can clearly see the parallels found in Old Testament literature, and why so many Hellenistic Jews played with this model when writing many of the dozens of pseudepigraphical and deuterocanonical books. Even Josephus and Philo play with the themes of this Greek model when writing their own ‘histories’ of the Patriarchs and other Old Testament figures.
So, with all of this in mind, the Torah, some of the Prophetic books, and many of the wisdom books were probably originally composed in Greek, and later adapted for Jewish settlements and villages in both the Greek polis’ and the chora (rural areas in Egypt), as well as other Diaspora settings where these settlements are not fully or mostly Hellenized and still communicated in Aramaic. There are perhaps some narratives that were originally composed in Hebrew, such as 1 Maccabees, Ester (although it seems more likely composed originally in Greek, the debate continues), Ecclesiastes (although some debate on this continues, the dating ranges from the fifth – third centuries BCE), and some of the prophetic books. Virtually all of the deuterocanonical books of the Hebrew Bible were not written in a Semitic language but rather in Greek.
Additionally, New Testament scholarship had for a very long time thought that the original composition of some of the Gospels (if not all of them) was in Aramaic, reflecting eyewitness authorship which no longer is assumed. Today, it is understood that the Gospels are not the works of eyewitnesses writing on historical events, but also literary creations composed by anonymous authors with very different motivations. The Gospel narratives, like many of the Old Testament literature, were written in Greek. All of Paul’s letters and the various pseudonymous epistles and Revelations were also written in Greek. And probably most of the Gnostic literature found at Nag Hammadi were also originally composed in Greek, and then later copied into Coptic – the language we currently have most of them in today (although some Greek fragments remain for some of them). The language adaptation of the texts reflects the adaptation of the interpretation by the authors of other narratives. It is all relative, and represents the times and culture of the day.
These phenomena may seem strange to those who believe the scriptures to have been authored by the names represented as their titles. But it is also important to keep in mind that there was no “canon” of scripture. The concept of “canon” was not yet developed, so the nature of reinterpretation, creation and development was not limited to what was considered “inspired” – it was all considered to be inspired. It was just not considered inspired by what churches today believe it to be. People wrote and rewrote the text in the language that reflected their communities. There was no “orthodoxy” of Jewish doctrine, that concept did not exist for another few hundred years. Even today I would hesitate to say there is one unified doctrine, especially in light of the hundreds of Abrahamic religious sects; from Judaism with its hundreds of sects, to Christianity with its tens of thousands of sects, with Islam and the interpretation of the Quran. There was never a ‘unified orthodoxy,’ nor will there be. Everyone interprets and copies the texts into their own languages, and still to this day interpret them based on their own understandings and their own communities needs, politics and demographics. This has always allowed for the continuation of redactions, reinterpretations and expressions of both ones faith and their religious texts.
In the end, it will depend greatly on the faithful to one day understand this fact, that there is no absolute answer, and there never was, and certainly the authors of the Bible didn’t believe there to be. The sooner those who believe understand this, the sooner we can all progress as a society.
(I recently answered a question concerning the Gospels, and their genre as literary fictions. This is a follow-up)
Yes. There are quite a few examples I could give, but because I’m short on time because my book demands so much from me, I’ll use the most simple example with the most groupings I can list without having to go into a whole lot of details. The book of Tobit. Tobit is, for lack of a better way to put it, edifying fictions. The story uses very specific literary motifs and tropes, as well as Greek folklore (the dangerous bride, the greatful dead, etc…). Nothing in this story is meant to be taken as historical narrative.
I’ll lay out some basic bullet points for you concerning Tobit and Homer.
There are four main characters in both books (Mainly books 1-4 of the Odyssey).
(1) Odysseus (father)
(2) Telemachus (son)
(3) Mentor (The Goddess “flashy-eyed” Athena disguised in human form)
(4) Penelope (mother, weaver)
(1) Tobit (father)
(2) Tobias (son)
(3) Azariah (The angel Raphael takes on the guise of human form - sounds kind of like the whole Jesus thing, huh?)
(4) Anna (mother, weaver)
The Greek author of Tobit draws heavily on the Homeric hexameter, in which he portrays sometimes verbatim, Homeric tropes through a Greek literary process called mimesis (or imitation). As was the sort of mimetic practice of the day, the authors of Jewish narratives throughout the Hellenistic period often set out to redefine, reinvent, interpret or completely recreate an event from scripture, by pulling on influence from a variety of Hellenic sources. (In this case, the author of Tobit also draws on themes and tropes from Genesis to supplement those which he draws from Homer) It is also important to remember that this was not considered blasphemous or even odd to a Jew during the Hellenic period. Many Jews, especially those born into the Diaspora, say in Alexandria, two generations out from the conquest of the land by Alexander the Great, would have grown up in a Hellenized society, having been themselves assimilated into the culture without ever really knowing that. Think of it in more modern terms: I’m an Italian, but I was born in America (second generation), so I am effectively Americanized, as was my father - my grandfather was brought up in America but was still not fully accommodated and assimilated into the American way of life like my father and I were. While we are still Italian by blood, we are American by culture and although we still maintain many Italian traditions (mainly family traditions), we also have developed many more new traditions and in most ways adapted Italian traditions to our American culture. The same thing was taking place for Jews (as well as Greeks!) in the Hellenic ancient Near East.
There was also no canon. It is important to keep in mind that many Old Testament books were still being written during the Hellenistic age, without a process of canonization until 200 CE (final), and it also was not until then that we see the Mishnah in written form and the start of the long process of collecting the volumes that form the Torah. (which would not be complete for another 400 years) So where one sees in the Letter of Aristeas a curse on those who would alter the scripture in any way (familiar to Matthew 5:17-21), such curses played no part in reality. The authors of the narratives such as Tobit, even Job, did not set out to replace or challenge the scripture, but rather to disguise it, dress it up, accompany it or act as commentary towards that literature. (One could even argue that those works that had more Greek influence were more theologically rich than those without that influence)
Sorry about the brief digression. I find it is important to have a mutual understanding of the times and cultural phenomena that were taking place before actually establishing the similarities (correlation does not always = causation, so it is important to establish a factual grounding for such causality to exist) Back to the similarities:
In both stories:
The father sends the son forth to accomplish a very important task for the family (Tobit needs to obtain a special treasure to save his family from financial ruin while curing his fathers blindness; Telemachus needs to journey away to find means to rid his household of the suitors which also threaten his families financial wellbeing), upon being given the task, a supernatural heavenly being appears in the guise of kindred (somebody related specifically to the family to gain the trust of the son). In both cases, a son is mourned by his mother who has to weave day and night (in the case of Tobit, it is to make ends meet. In Homer’s epic, it is to deal with the constant strain of the suitors who she must weave for). Upon their arrival at a city of more kindred and family friends, they enter a home where there is wedding feast taking place. Both stories have the recently married couple invite the two guests to spend time with them. While there, trials take place after which the son finds a bride and marries. Upon the finding of the wealth, there is a triumphant return home where the financial situation of the families are great and the hero’s honor is returned.
These are only brushing the surface mind you. There are so many minor similarities that to list them would take up several additional pages to adequately explain their interpretative abilities. But, I hope this suffices enough for now. You may find my blog of interest. There are actually quite a few posts dealing with this issue (recently, a response to Rick Hillegas in a magazine article).
For Additional Reading:
(1) Dennis R. MacDonald, Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity (2001)
(2) The Harper Collins Study Bible, NSRV. (2006, Revised)
(3) Erich Gruen (et al.), Hellenistic Constructs (1997)
(4) Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (1998)
(5) Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth (2007)
(6) Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark's World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1996)
What is a Gospel? For the last few hundred years, New Testament scholars, particularly in Germany, have been asking themselves this very question. Are they the biographies of a miraculous savior written by those who knew him and were closest to him? If that is the case, were they redacted by later Christians to include specific dogmatic and doctrinal ideals? Or, were the Gospels written up to centuries after a historical, human Jesus, by which Christians embellished his story into fictional history? And If that is what they are, do the discrepancies between the four Gospels represent the authors own theological perspectives? If so, how would one accurately determine which perspective is that of the authors and which is the perspective of the so-called real Jesus?
Since the time of the Bultmannian school, theologians have worked tirelessly, it seems, to locate the historically real behind the fictitious myth. In their eyes, and the eyes of historical Jesus scholars across the world, the legendary embellishments and indeed even literary narrative created by the authors overshadow the historical events of a real Jesus. And since the start of this ‘demythologizing’, as Bultmann put it, there have been detractors. These detractors who label themselves as apologists—Christians with the intent to defend the Gospel narratives has wholly accurate, including the miraculous parts—have published their own books relying on early Christian testimony and their so-called historical authority to prove that not only were these texts derived from those who knew and spoke with Jesus as his disciples, but also that they recorded accurately the events of Jesus’ ministry and even parts of his life.
Indeed, according to these apologists, the very reason why discrepancies exist (although some claim, falsely, that no discrepancies exist) is because eyewitness testimony could not be 100% similar across four accounts; that, had they been all copies of each other, this would have raised suspicion of their accuracy. Therefore, per these apologists, the Gospels are different and conflict precisely because they are eyewitness testimony. In response to these claims, historical Jesus scholars have accurately shown, through textual criticism, that the discrepancies do not exist through memory recall. To start, the historical Jesus scholars show that the similarities exist not because four authors recall similar events, but rather because the authors copied off each other. The discrepancies, therefore, exist because the authors altered the text of the version they copied from.
This is why there are different theological perspectives in each of the four Gospels. This is why Mark agrees with Paul and his denouncement of Jewish law, why he has Jesus changing the law, and why he has no birth narrative. This is also why Matthew, who disagrees with Paul, sought to have his Jesus condemn those who change the law to eternal damnation and hellfire, and why he includes a birth narrative resembling the narrative of Hezekiah’s found in Isaiah. It is why Luke makes Matthews birth narrative allude to the narrative of Isaac’s birth with Abraham and Sarah. He plays on multiple themes, to combine the Hellenistic Pauline theology with Matthew’s more Jewish theology. This is, according to the historical Jesus scholars, precisely why there are both similarities and discrepancies in the Gospel narratives.
But then we have an additional problem which threatens the foundations of scholarship as a whole. By attempting to pick which parts of the narratives are historically grounded, and which are not, scholars have effectively fractioned the Gospel narratives into fragmented sections or verses. A line here in this chapter may be historical, but the rest can be dismissed as fiction. The obvious problem of utilizing this method is that the narrative ceases to be looked at as a whole, and is only examined in small amounts, bit by bit. And what is examined depends entirely on which scholar is doing the examination. When one looks at the vast amount of literature that exists in scholarship on the historical Jesus, one can see that there is not one historical Jesus presented. There are as many representations of the so-called historical Jesus as there are scholars writing about him. This is because each scholar is giving us their own interpretation of what fragment of text is historical based on their own presuppositions, their own hermeneutical understanding of the text, and their own self reflections. So, what is happening is that we are getting fragmented selections of text based on a biased reason of a scholar. We are not getting a strict, underlining history based on critical observation of the whole manuscript. All that scholars can agree on, it seems, is that the events of the Gospels, as a whole, are not accurately reporting historical events. This fact is not helpful in answering the question posed in the title of this piece, it only confounds the problem. But there may still be a way to save this question, and present an answer based on the evidence presented above.
That brings us to an additional third option in an attempt to answer the original question: What is a Gospel? If scholarship is already in agreement, that fictional narrative is the functioning motif of the Gospels, why is there a broad presupposition that somewhere under this narrative exist historical fact? Hellenistic scholars outside of New Testament fields agree that Hellenistic Jews were famous for inventing fictional stories, events, characters and even whole wars to make their traditions more ‘Greek’, while reinterpreting scripture to show their cultural superiority. Is that not what the Gospels are? Are they not reinterpreted scripture, written in Hellenistic fashion? It’s a fact that no outside testimony to Gospel events are ever recorded by contemporaries. And scholarship admits that most of the “events” in the Gospel narratives relate back to reinterpreting scripture – the birth narratives, Jesus’ trial for 40 days in the wilderness, the transfiguration, the crucifixion (taken right from Psalms and Isaiah), every event that originally seemed to make Jesus appear real is nothing more than fictional restyling of scripture passages. Even the name “Jesus” (which means “savior” or “Yahweh saves”) is representative of earlier traditions where biblical patriarchs were named for their purpose (Abraham = “Father to many nations”; Isaac = “laughter”; etc…). There are twelve disciples just as there are twelve tribes, representing the instant where Moses father-in-law instructs him to find a head of every tribe for which to handle the business of their tribes – where Moses effectively sends out these twelve heads to their flock to make them straight in the sight of the lord.
So then what does that make the Gospels? If historical Jesus scholars do not view the Gospels as biographies, in the sense that they are depictions of somebody’s life, and that they are made up of fictional events created from scripture reinvention, a common method of Jewish Hellenistic writing, what is a Gospel? It seems more plausible that these narratives are probably completely fictitious in nature. That they were not, as it is commonly assumed, written about a historical Jesus, but instead these narratives were originally intended to be read as historicized fiction.
It is important to remember that the intent of this discussion is not to determine who wrote them, or for what additional purpose the narratives might have been written, although this author could certainly provide evidence for these questions. Instead, the question must be asked, and indeed, it has been asked: What is a Gospel? And the answer has to be met with criticism, in light of the exposed presuppositions mentioned above, and needs to be addressed by scholarship as a whole. Until this is done adequately, scholarship will continue to present us not the Jesus of history, nor a Gospel history, but a history fashioned entirely by the scholars themselves. Whole worlds have been—and will continue to be—created which never existed. Entire reflexive trends in Judaism have been assumed and, in a typical ad hoc manner, critiqued and presented as if they were known to Jews in the first century Common Era. Of course, they were not.
For some great resources on this subject, please read my blog.