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Who assembled the Gospels?

Last week we talked about the guys who wrote gospels about Jesus, and why we don’t have to be discouraged when “experts” cast doubt upon the validity, authenticity, and reliability of the New Testament. Today, we focus more on the trustworthiness of the Bible. While there is much to discuss, the canon of Scripture gets brought up often. The canon refers to the collection of books that make up the Christian Bible, and is an area of study that is interested in uncovering why certain books made it in, and why some did not. Are you curious?

I like to start by breaking this question down to the basics. What would cause me to trust that the Bible was assembled the right way? Well, let’s think about this…

If we needed information about a person like Jesus from a time without video technology or internet, a biographical sketch is the natural medium to choose. And who would be most reliable in doing that? Probably the twelve disciples, those men who were close to Him in proximity, ministry, and relationship.

The twelve disciples had the most relational currency with Jesus.

So what they said carries a lot of weight when it comes to replicating not only Jesus’ life and times, but also His teachings, transmitted by oral tradition as they were, since He never wrote anything down.

But by what sort of criteria can we use to decide if a set of writings are from his disciples? Well, think of it in more contemporary terms. If you wanted to know a few things about John F. Kennedy’s life, you could ask your friend (perhaps they know a few accurate things about that time period, or JFK himself). But what if your dad was alive during Kennedy’s life, and experienced his presidency? Well, now you have a slightly greater account, if for no other reason than your dad has an eyewitness account of Kennedy, and your friend has only second or third-hand knowledge. In fact, your friend may not have even been alive at the time anyway. But let’s take it up a notch. Let’s suppose you were able to speak to Kirk LeMoyne Billings, Kennedy’s best friend. That would be a drastic difference to which none of the first two options could compare. Not only was Billings an eyewitness, but he was also privy to knowledge about Kennedy being as close as he was to him. Now add to this hypothetical situation: Billings is commissioned by Kennedy to write his authorized biography about. Now you are beginning to grasp the nature of the New Testament gospels. These have all the characteristics you would expect from an authentic account of Jesus’ life.

Here are three things about the gospels that cannot be ignored.

1. An early date.

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were all written in the first century. Mark, the earliest gospel, was written somewhere in the mid- to late-50’s. If Jesus died in the early 30’s, as history tells us, then Mark’s gospel was penned within twenty years of Jesus’ life. At first mention, that may sound like a long time to you. But there are still throngs of people alive today who remember Kennedy’s life, presidency, and passing with vivid clarity, though it was over fifty years ago. A memorable event or person has the ability to burn itself into the memory as if it was yesterday. Twenty years is actually very early.

2. Eyewitnesses.

This one is easy. The gospel writers were there! Well, half of them were. John (the fourth gospel) was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and Matthew was the former tax collector who became Jesus’ disciple. Eyewitnesses. The other two were not around to witness Jesus life. So how did they make the cut? Well, history tells us that Mark and Luke were directly connected to some important eyewitnesses, namely, Peter and Paul, the apostles. As early as AD 120, Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, reported that Peter transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus to an assistant, named John Mark. Some traditions hold that the physician, Luke, was an associate of Paul’s (Col. 4:14).  So in other words, “Did the Gospel writers know Jesus personally? With confidence, we can say ‘no’ in the cases of the second [Mark] and third [Luke] Gospels. But these evangelists had access to reliable traditions about Jesus” (Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels. 49).

3. Commission.

Jesus didn’t just have a cluster of eyewitnesses around him observing his life. He commissioned certain people to document his life, death, resurrection, and teachings (Luke 24:48; Matt 28:19-20). Consider the gravity of that. These men were the only people we know of who were authorized and capable of speaking on behalf of Jesus. It makes sense that their writings take precedence over any other writings, whether ancient or modern. Other writings came much later, were not based on known eyewitnesses accounts, and were certainly without the authorization of Jesus Himself. In fact, that’s why the original Twelve disciples (as well as Paul, and some others) are also called, apostles, which means “to commission.”

Why is all of this important?

Many people like the idea of Jesus, but not everyone accepts everything He said or affirmed. You can tell by the amount of playtime our culture has given to some so-called alternative gospels. The Gnostic gospels, as their often called, are Read the rest of this entry

When experts attack (how to navigate conversations about the Bible)

Conversations always converge around the topic of Jesus as Easter approaches. 

But surprisingly, any push back about Easter is rarely about Jesus, and more with the guys who wrote about Jesus. A common question is how the Scriptures were finally assembled, and how the books that are in the Bible made it there to begin with (The finished version is usually called the canon of Scripture). Maybe you’ve heard questions like this before: “How do we know the gospels are the right ones?” or “Were there any other gospels we should be considering?” These are valid questions that we should think deeply about, considering how we place the bulk of our faith on these writings! How did they get chosen? Are there other valid writings about Jesus? How will we ever know? These were some of the questions that surfaced in conversations while I was in college, especially around the release of The Da Vinci Code, and ended up being questions I asked myself. Almost counterintuitively, these questions strengthened my faith in Christ and in the Bible, because I was forced to examine the claims against it for myself.

If I’ve learned anything since then, it’s that questions and doubts are not a faux pais in the world of the historic Christian faith.

Think about this. Doubt is like temptation–it’s not wrong to have them. Jesus was tempted (Matt 4), yet He withstood them by the power of the Holy Spirit. So it’s not wrong to have doubts, but it does matter how you handle them. And the only way to start is by asking them. Underlying some of our strongest doubts is the desire to wrestle with and come to terms with the truth, and it’s only possible to desire the truth when some glimmer of faith is present. Doubt is not the absence of faith; doubt is the evidence of faith. If we’re going to believe some of the other outlandish claims that Jesus often made, we might as well get used to asking good questions, and wrestling with the answers. So I set out to do this with the canon, or assembling, of the Christian Bible.

I learned pretty quickly that there’s a lot of material on subjects like Scripture’s canonization (did the “right” books make it in?), historicity (does it accurately convey history?), and reliability (do we have the original message intended by the authors?). This was a relief. It’s sooo easy to read one-liners out of some bestselling book attempting to derail our trust in the reliability of the Christian faith, thinking they are the last word on the subject.

If I may offer you a note of comfort, many of the people you have conversations with are probably also unaware of the evidence that affirms the reliability of the Bible.

For example, when a movie gets released days before Easter with some “new secret” undermining the historical accounts so dear to the Christian faith, both Christians and skeptics begin analyzing the film. Actually, I love these types of conversation. They’re engaging. They make both parties think deeply. Christians should converse intelligently and be winsome with skeptics about their faith. In fact, some of my most thoughtful and enjoyable conversations about my faith have been with skeptics, who, like me, sincerely want to know the reasons behind what their friends believe, even if they don’t end up subscribing to the same beliefs. It’s what friends do. So those conversations shouldn’t stop.

But I am hoping to bring awareness to the content of those conversations, and the fact that some “new findings” are often not new or original.

Whenever a Da Vinci Code, a Zeitgeist, or a new Bart Ehrman book gets released, it’s often the same old stuff being recycled from past scholarly conversations, and repackaged for the mainstream. But scholars have been talking about these issues for decades–-centuries even-–with reasonable answers to some of the critical jabs that are leveled against the trustworthiness of the Bible;  and every time a new movie or book comes out “undermining” the Christian faith, I want so badly to give believing scholars similar airtime when objections to the reliability of the Bible are raised.

But that stuff never makes the headlines. Why? Partially because the truth isn’t always sensational enough to sell, and is often couched in the language of academia anyway. Scholars write for other scholars. Let’s face it: scholars can sound a bit boring for the rest of us. The unfortunate result? The reasonable claims for the reliability of the Bible get hidden under a brightly colored carpet of New York Times bestsellers. See, a scholarly work that’s been repackaged for the mainstream and pasted with a headline blasting the origins or reliability of the Bible in short, sensational snippets is not boring. When one of these controversial books hits the shelf, a feeding frenzy ensues, and you will quickly get familiarized with an appeal to authority (argumentum ab auctoritate). This is a subtle logical fallacy that bases a belief in the credentials of the one writing, instead of on the soundness of the argument being made.

For example…

“Don’t drink the water in Santa Barbara because research has shown it to contain microscopic particles that could cause ADHD in children.” – Duke E. Sarmonstrus, M.D.

Now, if I were to post this on Facebook, there is a good chance some would believe it, and it would spread. We see this all the time, right? Posts about some crazy story that gets shared millions of times, without ever being checked against Snopes.com. These stories get traction when they’re believable, supported by an authority figure, and feed into our secret fears or desires. But there’s one problem with the statement I made: it’s not true. I just made it up as I was writing, and gave it an air of authority by attaching a name that looks important. Of course, in the real world, there are authority figures, experts, and Ph.D’s who are smart, and at the forefront of their fields of study. This is to our benefit. They are a blessing to society, and have devoted years of their lives to understanding things we want to know more about, not the least of which is the God of Bible.

But do not make the same mistake that is rampant among the mainstream: it is not the credentials of the expert that one must scrutinize, but the soundness of the arguments being made by them.

And the argument I made above is not sound, even though it sounds good; neither the premises nor the conclusion are true. But all you need is to attach some level of credibility to the quote itself, and if there is someone somewhere who wants the quote to be true, then it will sell like guacamole at the Carpinteria Avocado Festival. It’s easier to accept the headlines than it is to research them. Sometimes deferring to a “credible source” is a cop-out. I know I’ve done this. But don’t we want more than spoon-fed factlets of shock-value and sound-bites? All of us are capable of engaging important issues with critical thinking and conversation. After all, if the Bible is true, it will prove itself. The thought of testing our beliefs shouldn’t scare us; and we should take the skeptic’s questions seriously. We’re not talking about menial beliefs here! If what the Bible says about Jesus rising from the dead is true, that changes everything. But if the Bible is wrong about the resurrection, then “we are above all people, most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19, NIV).

I have and continue to make that journey. You should too. An easy way to start is by listening to the other side. If an expert in the New Testament says that Paul didn’t really write some of the epistles in the Bible, try checking out the opposing viewpoints of other authoritative sources. If your friend at school tells you that “Emperor Constantine assembled the Bible to reinforce his own power structures,” ask them where they learned that information, and explore it yourself. If your professor tells you that the gnostic gospels are a more reliable version of Jesus’ life, ask a professor (who believes in the sufficiency of the Bible) why he believe’s the gnostics didn’t make it into the canon. In other words, don’t assume something is true because an expert said it was true. Examine it! If you explore some of the accusations that culture, society, and even critical scholarship level against the Bible for yourself, you may find yourself migrating towards the Bible’s view of itself.

As I mentioned before, I’ll share a bit about canonization (how we know the right books made it in the Bible) in my next blog post this week. And you can trust that everything I say is correct and true. ~ Dr. Chris Lazo, Ph.D, M.D., CPA, MBA, BAM.

How to read through the 1st five books of the Old Testament

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