Sunday, December 6, 2015

Faith Is Not Necessarily Blind . . . .

   Why do I write what I do?  If there is a common thread that runs through all of my books, it is my belief that the Gospels passed on, with careful accuracy, the teachings and the life story of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because I believe the Gospels, I therefore believe that Jesus - Yeshua, the simple Galilean carpenter born during the reign of Augustus a little over two thousand years ago - truly was the Son of God, a divine being come into the world to bring hope and salvation to mankind.  I believe in His teachings, and I believe the miracles he performed really happened as described.  I believe the rest of the New Testament was written by His disciples as part of their commission to "bind and loose," to lay down the doctrines and practices, based on the teachings of Jesus Himself, that would be binding upon Christians until the day when He returns for His church.
    Some of my atheist friends like to poke fun at my convictions, mocking my "blind faith" in a book that was written by men some two thousand years ago.  How can I be sure that these documents are true, first of all?  How can I be confident that the text we have today is even close to the original wording of these documents when they have been copied by hand again and again and again for centuries?  Why don't I accept the other Gospels - the books attributed to Thomas, Judas, Peter, and others that didn't make it into the New Testament?  I get asked a lot of questions all the time, and I respond to them regularly in the various social media forums that I belong to.  But I thought that I might devote tonight's post to some very basic explanations.
   Why do I believe the Gospels are true?  Simple.  First of all, they were written earlier than any other Christian writings except a few of Paul's letters.  Every single Gospel was written within the First Century, according to all but a few radical scholars.  At the latest, that puts them within seventy years of the events they chronicle.  However, most scholars would say that the three Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - were completed by around 70 AD.  I think a very convincing case can be made that they were written a decade earlier, in the early 60's.  So that puts them within thirty to forty years of the events they chronicle.  Consider that the biographies of the Roman emperors of the First Century that modern historians rely on were actually written a hundred years or more after those men lived, and that the stories of Buddha's life were not written down for nearly three hundred years, that's a negligible period of time.  Many of the participants in the events would have still been alive when the Gospels were written, and if you go by the traditional authorship (I have yet to see any convincing reason to reject those claims) assigned to the Gospels, two of them were written by eyewitnesses, one by a close associate of Simon Peter, and finally, one by a Greek doctor who clearly said that he got his information from those "who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word."  Secondly, the historical details contained within the Gospels in every case match up to the historical setting in which the events occurred.  Luke's Gospel in particular lists the names of numerous local authorities and officials, and in every case he uses the correct name and title for the correct person at the correct time and place.  John lists details of the Temple rituals, the geography of Jerusalem, and Jewish customs that a later writer would have had no way of knowing.  Accuracy in small details is a reliable companion to accuracy in major claims.  Third, while there are minor variations in the events chronicled in the Gospels, on the central teachings of Jesus and the chronology of his life, they are in full agreement - a hallmark of a true account.  The variations that do occur are a natural result of an event being recalled from more than one perspective, not "contradictions" as they are often touted to be.
   How can we be confident of our current text?  After all, the Gospels were hand copied by scribes for many  centuries.  Didn't they make mistakes?  The short answer is, of course they did.  However, the number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is so large (over seven thousand!), and the gap between the time the originals were written and the date of the earliest copies we have is so small, that it is a very simple matter for textual scholars to weed out the errors that have crept in.  For example, Homer's Odyssey is the second place finisher for number of manuscripts, with around five hundred or so.  But the earliest fragment of Homer dates to around 100 AD, nine centuries after he wrote, and the earliest complete copy is from around 800 AD.  That's a gap of some sixteen hundred years! We have two complete copies of the New Testament that date to around 320-350 AD (three centuries or less after their writing), and fragments of individual books that go back to within a single generation of the originals! (The Rylands papyrus fragment of John 18 has been dated to about 120 AD; John was the last Gospel written, around 90 AD or so.)
    It's also worth noting that none of these scribal errors really affect the meaning of the Gospel, or any of the cardinal doctrines of the church.  Of the 200,000 or so documented errors in the various Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some 80% are simple spelling errors, and another 15% or so are errors in the order of words - the most common of which is a scribe writing "Christ Jesus" when the original text said "Jesus Christ." What exactly do errors like that change about our understanding of the Gospel?  NOTHING!   Only in a handful of passages in the entire New Testament is there any doubt about the original wording, and none of them change a single major doctrine of Christianity.
  Finally, why do I reject the "Gnostic Gospels" like Thomas, Judas, and others?  All of them date much later than the four canonical gospels - while some have tried to argue that Thomas may date to the first century, textual analysis makes a date in the mid-to-late second century far more likely. The other Gnostic Gospels date even later.  In other words, there is a very high probability, historically speaking, that the four Gospels of the New Testament could have been written by, or at least preserve the words of, the men whose names they bear.  The window of time is small enough, and every single ancient source ascribes them to those authors and no others.  However, all the other Gospels show up far too late to have been written by the men whose names they bear, which means they are based on a falsehood from the get-go.  They also contain numerous historical errors, and present a very different view of Jesus from that of the earliest and most reliable sources.  Not only that, the Apostolic Fathers of the second and third centuries after Christ were unanimous in condemning these works as "spurious" - in modern language, forgeries.
   So, in the end, my faith is based on a reasonable, historical conclusion that the Gospels are ancient, accurate sources of information about the life of Jesus.  That's not exactly "blind"!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment