The Gospels—The Debate Goes On
Are the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ true?
Did he give the Sermon on the Mount?
Was Jesus really resurrected?
Did he actually say: “I am the way and the truth and the life”?—John 14:6.
MATTERS of this kind have been discussed by some 80 scholars at the Jesus Seminar, which has been held twice a year since 1985. This group of scholars has answered such questions in an unusual way. Seminar participants have cast ballots on each saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. A red ballot indicates the opinion that the statement was indeed made by Jesus. A pink ballot means that a statement resembles something Jesus might have said. A gray ballot shows that the ideas may be close to those of Jesus, but the statement did not originate with him. A black ballot is totally negative, holding that the statement was derived from later tradition.
Following this method, the participants in the Jesus Seminar have dismissed all four points raised in question form at the outset. In fact, they have cast a black ballot for 82 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. According to them, only 16 percent of the events recounted about Jesus in the Gospels and other writings appear to be authentic.
Such criticism of the Gospels is not new. An attack on the Gospels appeared in 1774 when a 1,400-page manuscript by Hermann Reimarus, a professor of Oriental languages in Hamburg, Germany, was published posthumously. Therein Reimarus entertained profound doubts about the historicity of the Gospels. His conclusions were based on linguistic analysis and seeming contradictions found in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Since then, critics have often expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Gospels, to some extent undermining public confidence in these writings.
The common denominator among such scholars is that they regard the Gospel accounts as religious fiction handed down by various individuals. The usual questions raised by doubting scholars are: Might their beliefs have caused the writers of the four Gospels to embellish actual fact? Did the politics of the early Christian community cause them to edit or add to Jesus’ story? Which parts of the Gospels are likely to be straight reporting rather than mythmaking?
People raised in an atheistic or secularized society believe that the Bible—the Gospels included—is a book full of legends and myths. Still others are appalled by Christendom’s history of bloodshed, oppression, disunity, and ungodly behavior. Such individuals see no reason for paying any attention to writings held sacred in Christendom. They feel that works that have produced a hypocritical religion cannot be anything more than useless fables.
What do you think? Should you allow some scholars who question the historicity of the Gospels to give rise to similar doubts in your mind? When you hear declarations about alleged mythmaking by Gospel writers, should you allow this to shake your confidence in their writings? Should the ungodly record of Christendom make you question the reliability of the Gospels? We invite you to examine some of the facts.
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Do the Gospels contain fables or facts?
Jesus Walking on the Sea/The Doré Bible Illustrations/Dover Publications
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Background, pages 3-5 and 8: Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.