Rebuttal of Chapter 5: The "New Testament" — History or Myth?
This is a commentary on the Watchtower Society's 1989 book The Bible: God's Word or Man's?, Chapter 5: "The "New Testament" -- History or Myth?"
The "New Testament" -- History or Myth?
The conclusions reached by some investigators have been bizarre. Back in the 19th century, Ludwig Noack in Germany concluded that the Gospel of John was written in 60 C.E. by the beloved disciple -- who, according to Noack, was Judas! The Frenchman Joseph Ernest Renan suggested that the resurrection of Lazarus was likely a fraud arranged by Lazarus himself to support Jesus' claim of being a miracle worker, while the German theologian Gustav Volkmar insisted that the historical Jesus could not possibly have come forward with Messianic claims.
2 Bruno Bauer, on the other hand, decided that Jesus never existed at all! "He maintained that the real creative forces in early Christianity were Philo, Seneca, and the Gnostics. In the end he declared that there never had been a historical Jesus ... that the genesis of the Christian religion was late in the second century and was from a Judaism in which Stoicism had become dominant."
3 Today, few hold such extreme ideas. But if you read the works of modern scholars, you will find many still believe that the Christian Greek Scriptures contain legend, myth, and exaggeration. Is this true?
An interesting start to the chapter. The Society begins with ridicule. Note the way they used exclamation marks to make it seem as if they were dealing with absurd ideas. Note the words 'bizarre' and 'extreme' in describing such viewpoints. Why is such a prejudicial presentation needed? If the ideas are, indeed, bizarre, won't that be obvious to the reader? Why resort to the name-calling of these three paragraphs?
Note the proper way to deal with controversial subject matters, as demonstrated by Professor Thomas H. Huxley in his essay "Agnosticism":
"See, for an admirable discussion of the whole subject, ... the remarkable monograph by Prof. Volkmar, "Jesus Nazarenus und die erste Christliche Zeit" (1882). Whether we agree with the conclusions of these writers or not, the method of critical investigation which they adopt is unimpeachable."
Here Gustav Volkmar is mentioned, and Huxley points out that you may not agree with him, but at least you must respect they way he went about his investigations. This is a much more respectful way to deal with controversial topics.
When Were They Written?
4 It takes time for myths and legends to develop. So the question, When were these books written?, is important. Michael Grant, a historian, says that the historical writings of the Christian Greek Scriptures were begun "thirty or forty years after Jesus' death." Biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright cited C. C. Torrey as concluding "that all the Gospels were written before 70 A.D. and that there is nothing in them which could not have been written within twenty years of the Crucifixion." Albright's own opinion was that their writing was completed "not later than about 80 A.D." Others come up with slightly different estimates, but most agree that the writing of the "New Testament" was completed by the end of the first century.
5 What does this mean? Albright concludes: "All we can say is that a period of between twenty and fifty years is too slight to permit of any appreciable corruption of the essential content and even of the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus." Professor Gary Habermas adds: "The Gospels are quite close to the period of time which they record, while ancient histories often describe events which took place centuries earlier. Yet, modern historians are able to successfully derive the events even from these ancient periods of time."
6 In other words, the historical parts of the Christian Greek Scriptures are worthy of at least as much credence as secular histories. Certainly, in the few decades between the events of early Christianity and their being recorded in writing, there was no time for myths and legends to develop and be universally accepted.
No, that first sentence of paragraph 6 is not true. They are reaching a conclusion that is not supported by the quote they refer to in paragraph 5. You can argue that the gospels were written close enough to the events described as to compare favorably with the timetable of other secular historical accounts. But it does not then follow that the gospel histories are worthy of as much credence as secular histories. If, for example, the secular histories do not contain talk of miracles, then they are worthy of much more credence.
As for the second sentence in paragraph 6, this is an unsupported statement. There was plenty of time for myths and legends to develop in a few decades. Consider that when Jesus died, there were only a few dozen followers. Now their leader is dead, they face the hostility of the established religious order and they don't know what to do. What better approach to take but to say that your leader is, in fact, quite alive and has power! They didn't have to be lying, either, for the disciples could well have believed it all, using unrelated scriptures to back up their yearned for beliefs. As they spread this message, fully convinced in their own minds, the myths and legends spread.
Remember, it wasn't as easy to check up on these things back then as it would be today with our pervasive media. If the disciples said Jesus was resurrected, who were they to argue? Their superstitious minds believed that kind of stuff anyway, so it would make sense to them. As one person told the next, the legends could grow. It could easily happen in just a matter of years.
7 This is especially true in view of the fact that many of the accounts speak of eyewitness testimony. The writer of the Gospel of John said: "This is the disciple [the disciple that Jesus loved] that bears witness about these things and that wrote these things." (John 21:24) The writer of the book of Luke says: "Those who from the beginning became eyewitnesses and attendants of the message delivered these to us." (Luke 1:2) The apostle Paul, speaking of those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, said: "Most of [them] remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep in death." -- 1 Corinthians 15:6.
Empty claims, really, for who is to say if these were really eyewitnesses or not? They claim they were, but how do we know? If I'm trying to help establish a small religion in the face of hostilities, I would say I had eyewitnesses too! But if you're smart, you'd ask for proof, not just my word on it. With Paul, however, we can't ask him for proof anymore, we just have his word on it. Remember, Paul was not an eyewitness, so all he could do is believe the words of those who said they were.
8 In this connection, Professor F. F. Bruce makes a keen observation: "It can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.... The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, 'We are witnesses of these things,' but also, 'As you yourselves also know' (Acts 2:22)."
Indeed, their words were exposed by those who opposed them! Such has always been the case with religion. Those who believe feel they have the facts on their side. Those who don't believe, gladly point out the contradictions and falsehoods, and the believers blithely ignore this. We have examples of this right in the Bible, with the Jews coming up with alternative explanations for these events. Christians assume the Jews were just jealous, and thus dismiss these charges. Nevertheless, the quote from Professor Bruce ignores the fact that the early Christians did have detractors who pointed out discrepancies in their stories.
Even today, it is quite easy to show contradictions between gospel accounts. So the disciples were, indeed, guilty of inaccuracies, despite what Prof. Bruce thinks.
Is the Text Trustworthy?
9 Is it possible that these eyewitness testimonies were accurately recorded but later corrupted? In other words, were myths and legends introduced after the original writing was completed? We have already seen that the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures is in better condition than any other ancient literature. Kurt and Barbara Aland, scholars of the Greek text of the Bible, list almost 5,000 manuscripts that have survived from antiquity down to today, some from as early as the second century C.E. The general testimony of this mass of evidence is that the text is essentially sound. Additionally, there are many ancient translations -- the earliest dating to about the year 180 C.E. -- that help to prove that the text is accurate.
So with no translations or manuscripts dating back earlier than the second century C.E., the Society admits that what we have today in the Christian Greek Scriptures came to us from apostates. (Remember, the apostasy began in the first century and then bloomed in the second, so those who compiled and copied what we read today were, according to the Society, apostates).
How do we know what may, or may not, have happened to these manuscripts in the hundred or two hundred years from their original writing and the appearance of the oldest known manuscripts today?
When the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, they were hailed as confirming the accuracy of the Bible manuscripts, especially Isaiah. Did you know, however, that when other manuscripts were looked at they showed substantial changes? The manuscripts of Jeremiah, for example, were found to have had additions and changes made. Research the Dead Sea scrolls to see for yourself that manuscripts were tampered with. Why could this not also have happened with Christian Greek scriptures, under the care of 'apostates'?
10 Hence, by any reckoning, we can be sure that legends and myths did not infiltrate into the Christian Greek Scriptures after the original writers finished their work. The text we have is substantially the same as the one that the original writers penned, and its accuracy is confirmed by the fact that contemporaneous Christians accepted it. Can we, then, check the historicity of the Bible by comparing it with other ancient histories? To some extent, yes.
Of course the contemporaneous Christians accepted their own scriptures. They wrote the stuff. Only a tiny handful of Christians could have said anything was wrong, for only they had been eyewitnesses. And most of what Jesus said and did could only have been verified by 11 men, so if they wrote down something, what was a contemporaneous Christian to say? That he didn't agree with it? Of course not!
Not too much has been said in this subheading. If one wanted to argue that the early Christians made up most of the gospel accounts, there isn't much in this subheading that would disprove it.
The Documentary Evidence
11 In fact, for events in the lives of Jesus and his apostles, documentary evidence apart from the Bible is quite limited. This is only to be expected, since in the first century, Christians were a relatively small group that did not get involved in politics. But the evidence that secular history does provide agrees with what we read in the Bible.
12 For example, after Herod Antipas suffered a resounding military defeat, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in 93 C.E., said: "To some of the Jews the destruction of Herod's army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God." Thus Josephus confirms the Bible account that John the Baptizer was a righteous man who preached repentance and who was executed by Herod. -- Matthew 3:1-12; 14:11.
13 Josephus also mentions James, the half brother of Jesus, who, the Bible tells us, did not initially follow Jesus but later became a prominent elder in Jerusalem. (John 7:3-5; Galatians 1:18, 19) He documents James' arrest in these words: "[The high priest Ananus] convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others." In writing these words, Josephus additionally confirms that "Jesus, who was called the Christ" was a real, historical person.
14 Other early writers too refer to things mentioned in the Greek Scriptures. For example, the Gospels tell us that Jesus' preaching around Palestine met with a wide response. When he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, his followers were confused and disheartened. Soon afterward, these same disciples boldly filled Jerusalem with the message that their Lord had been resurrected. In a few years, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. -- Matthew 4:25; 26:31; 27:24-26; Acts 2:23, 24, 36; 5:28; 17:6.
15 Witness to the truth of this comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who was no friend of Christianity. Writing soon after 100 C.E., he tells of Nero's cruel persecution of the Christians and adds: "Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself."
16 At Acts 18:2 the Bible writer refers to the fact that "[the Roman emperor] Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome." Second-century Roman historian Suetonius also refers to this expulsion. In his work The Deified Claudius, the historian says: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome." If Chrestus here refers to Jesus Christ and if the events in Rome followed the pattern in other cities, then the riots were not actually at the instigation of Christ (that is, Christ's followers). Rather, they were the Jews' violent response to the faithful preaching activity of Christians.
17 Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, wrote in reference to the death of Jesus: "That these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate." In addition, according to Justin Martyr, these same records mentioned Jesus' miracles, regarding which he says: "That He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate." True, these "Acts," or official records, no longer exist. But they evidently did exist in the second century, and Justin Martyr confidently challenged his readers to check them to verify the truth of what he said.
This entire subheading proves nothing more than the fact that the gospels contain some history. Nobody denies that anymore, and it is irrelevant to the argument at hand. If you add some extraneous details to an historical setting, and then someone comes along and verifies that historical setting, it does not then follow that the extraneous details are also true.
If I say that in Los Angeles, in 1998, there was a lot of rain from the weather patterns affected by El Niño, and also Frank Sinatra was raised from the dead, am I telling the truth? If someone comes along 2,000 years later and says "There really was a Los Angeles, and we have records of an unusually rainy 1998, and there really was an historical figure called Sinatra that died that year" does that then prove that I was right in saying he was raised from the dead? Of course not. All I did was put a fanciful story in a realistic setting to make it more believable. So too, the Christian Greek scriptures could be structured in precisely this way, and so far this chapter has done nothing to dispel this idea.
The Archaeological Evidence
18 Archaeological discoveries have also illustrated or confirmed what we read in the Greek Scriptures. Thus, in 1961 the name of Pontius Pilate was found in an inscription in the ruins of a Roman theater at Caesarea. Until this discovery, there had been only limited evidence, apart from the Bible itself, of the existence of this Roman ruler.
So before 1961, there was Biblical and secular evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate. After 1961 there was more secular evidence, no longer "limited" evidence. What does this prove?
19 In Luke's Gospel, we read that John the Baptizer began his ministry "when ... Lysanias was district ruler of Abilene." (Luke 3:1) Some doubted that statement because Josephus mentioned a Lysanias who ruled Abilene and who died in 34 B.C.E., long before the birth of John. However, archaeologists have uncovered an inscription in Abilene mentioning another Lysanias who was tetrarch (district ruler) during the reign of Tiberius, who was ruling as Caesar in Rome when John began his ministry. This could easily have been the Lysanias to whom Luke was referring.
Could be, but why is this significant? We've already seen that the Bible writers used real settings, so why would we be surprised that Luke referred to a real ruler?
20 In Acts we read that Paul and Barnabas were sent to do missionary work in Cyprus and there met up with a proconsul named Sergius Paulus, "an intelligent man." (Acts 13:7) In the middle of the 19th century, excavations in Cyprus uncovered an inscription dating from 55 C.E. that mentions this very man. Of this, archaeologist G. Ernest Wright says: "It is the one reference we have to this proconsul outside the Bible and it is interesting that Luke gives us correctly his name and title."
Do you keep accurate house-to-house records? If so, you are doing what Luke describes, but that doesn't prove much.
21 When he was in Athens, Paul said he had observed an altar that was dedicated "To an Unknown God." (Acts 17:23) Altars dedicated in Latin to anonymous gods have been discovered in parts of the territory of the Roman Empire. One was found in Pergamum with the inscription written in Greek, as would have been the case in Athens.
22 Later, while in Ephesus, Paul was violently opposed by silversmiths, whose income was derived from making shrines and images of the goddess Artemis. Ephesus was referred to as "the temple keeper of the great Artemis." (Acts 19:35) In harmony with this, a number of terra-cotta and marble figurines of Artemis have been discovered at the site of ancient Ephesus. During the last century, the remains of the huge temple itself were excavated.
This subheading is called "The Archaeological Evidence", but all the evidence the Society provides merely proves that real settings were used in the Christian Greek scriptures, hardly a point of contention today. How does this prove the Bible is God's word, anymore than the fact that the Koran references real places and people proves it is the word of God? For that matter, why not include Shakespeare's Hamlet as a work of truth and reality since it is set in a real place in a real country?
The Ring of Truth
23 Hence, history and archaeology illustrate, and to some extent confirm, the historical elements of the Greek Scriptures. But, again, the strongest proof of the truth of these writings is in the books themselves. When you read them, they do not sound like myths. They have the ring of truth.
This is a judgment call, of course, since much of the Christian Greek scriptures does sound like myths to many people.
24 For one thing, they are very frank. Think of what is recorded about Peter. His embarrassing failure to walk on water is detailed. Then, Jesus says to this highly respected apostle: "Get behind me, Satan!" (Matthew 14:28-31; 16:23) Moreover, after vigorously protesting that even if all the others abandoned Jesus, he would never do so, Peter fell asleep on his night watch and then denied his Lord three times. -- Matthew 26:31-35, 37-45, 73-75.
25 But Peter is not the only one whose weaknesses are exposed. The frank record does not gloss over the apostles' bickering about who was the greatest among them. (Matthew 18:1; Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24) Nor does it omit telling us that the mother of the apostles James and John asked Jesus to give her sons the most favored positions in his Kingdom. (Matthew 20:20-23) The "sharp burst of anger" between Barnabas and Paul is also faithfully documented. -- Acts 15:36-39.
26 Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the book of Luke tells us that it was "the women, who had come with him out of Galilee," who first learned about Jesus' resurrection. This is a most unusual detail in the male-dominated society of the first century. Indeed, according to the record, what the women were saying "appeared as nonsense" to the apostles. (Luke 23:55-24:11) If the history in the Greek Scriptures is not true, it must have been invented. But why would anyone invent a story portraying such respected figures in such an unflattering light? These details would have been included only if they were true.
There are many details in the Christian Greek scriptures that are, no doubt, absolutely true, or at least come from a true source. People, places, events are described in ways that make it sound as if there really was a Jesus and he had disciples and the disciples worked along with him for some time.
This subheading is focused on the fact that several Bible characters are depicted in a bad light, and thus it has the 'ring of truth' to it. Does that mean Macbeth's wife is a true character, since her flaws are made manifest? Really, this proof is nothing of the sort, since any writer can invent realistic characters, and fiction is full of flawed, realistic people. Since these characters appear throughout fiction, how does a realistic portrayal of early Christians prove that they must be true? By that standard, we might as well say they sound like good fiction.
Jesus -- A Real Person
27 Many have viewed Jesus as he is described in the Bible as an idealized fiction. But historian Michael Grant notes: "If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned."
Jesus does seem to have been a real person in history.
28 Not only Jesus' existence but also his personality comes through in the Bible with a decided ring of truth. It is not easy to invent an unusual character and then present a consistent portrait of him throughout a whole book. It is nearly impossible for four different writers to write about the same character and consistently paint the same picture of him if that character never really existed. The fact that the Jesus described in all four Gospels is obviously the same person is persuasive evidence of the Gospels' truthfulness.
Well, if they were describing the same real person, it should be consistent. Of course, the overall flavor of each of the gospels is quite different from the others, but then if you take all the biographies of, say, Charles Dickens, you get the same overall facts with different styles. What does this prove? Not a thing, other than Dickens, like Jesus, existed.
29 Michael Grant quotes a very appropriate question: "How comes it that, through all the Gospel traditions without exception, there comes a remarkably firmly-drawn portrait of an attractive young man moving freely about among women of all sorts, including the decidedly disreputable, without a trace of sentimentality, unnaturalness, or prudery, and yet, at every point, maintaining a simple integrity of character?" The only answer is that such a man really existed and acted in the way the Bible says.
The Society is attacking an argument that holds little weight today. Most people will not deny that Jesus existed, so this is an easy argument to win. Perhaps you've noticed by now that many of the arguments the Society fights were put forth before the 20th Century. Note how often they quote some 19th-century critic, and then try to demolish his argument.
Why does the Society avoid modern, up-to-date criticism in this chapter? For example, what about all the discrepancies between the resurrection accounts of the gospels?
Or what about the way Jesus himself is inconsistent in the gospels? For example, at Matthew 5:22 he says "...whoever says, 'You despicable fool!' will be liable to the fiery Ge·hen'na." Then at Matt. 23:17 he says to the Pharisees "Fools and blind ones!" Was Jesus exempt from his own rule? He doesn't seem allow for exceptions in Matt. 5.
The Society tries to explain this away in the Insight book under 'Fool' by saying:
"Jesus Christ rightly referred to the scribes and Pharisees as "fools and blind ones," that is, persons lacking wisdom and being morally worthless, for they had distorted the truth by man-made traditions and followed a hypocritical course. Moreover, Jesus backed up the correctness of this designation by illustrating their lack of discernment. (Mt 23:15-22; 15:3) However, the individual wrongly calling a brother a "despicable fool," judging and condemning his brother as being morally worthless, would make himself liable to Gehenna. -- Mt 5:22" (Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 1, p. 486)
This adds to the scripture at Matt. 5:22, however, by making an excuse for Jesus' behavior, saying that he rightly called the Pharisees 'fool', but Matt. 5:22 only refers to 'wrongly' calling a brother 'fool'. Note that the same Greek word for 'fool' is used in both cases.
There are many examples where Jesus is presented inconsistently in the gospels. Why doesn't the Society even attempt to discuss these issues, instead relying on attacking 19th-century arguments that hold little weight today?
Why They Do Not Believe
30 Since there is compelling evidence for saying that the Greek Scriptures are true history, why do some say they are not? Why is it that many, while accepting parts of them as genuine, nevertheless refuse to accept everything they contain? It is mainly because the Bible records things that modern intellectuals do not want to believe. It tells, for example, that Jesus both fulfilled and uttered prophecies. It also tells that he performed miracles and that after his death he was resurrected.
31 In this skeptical 20th century, such things are incredible. Regarding miracles, Professor Ezra P. Gould notes: "There is one reservation which some of the critics feel themselves justified in making ... that miracles do not happen." Some accept that Jesus may have effected healings, but only of the psychosomatic, 'mind over matter,' type. As for the other miracles, most explain them away either as inventions or as real events that were distorted in the telling.
Why did Professor Gould think these critics were justified in thinking miracles do not happen? The Society doesn't tell us his side of the story, leaving it up to the average Witness to do the research. Of course, most won't bother. Do you know why he said what he did?
32 As an example of this, consider the occasion when Jesus fed a crowd of more than 5,000 with just a few loaves and two fishes. (Matthew 14:14-22) Nineteenth-century scholar Heinrich Paulus suggested that what really happened was this: Jesus and his apostles found themselves attended by a large multitude that were getting hungry. So he decided to set a good example for the rich among them. He took what little food he and his apostles had and shared it with the multitude. Soon, others who had brought food followed his example and shared theirs. Finally, the whole multitude was fed.
33 If this is what really happened, though, it was a remarkable proof of the power of good example. Why would such an interesting and meaningful story be distorted to make it sound like a supernatural miracle? Indeed, all such efforts to explain away the miracles as other than miraculous pose more problems than they solve. And they are all based on a false premise. They start by assuming that miracles are impossible. But why should that be the case?
And the Society starts by assuming that miracles are possible, and that could be called a false premise.
As far as the question about asking why such an interesting and meaningful story be distorted, the answer is obvious. The early Christians were under attack and needed all the ammunition they could muster. A person who sets a good example for others to follow is nice, but a miracle worker is much better!
34 According to the most reasonable standards, both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures are genuine history, yet they both contain examples of prophecy and miracles. (Compare 2 Kings 4:42-44.) What, then, if the prophecies are genuine? And what if miracles actually did occur? Then God was indeed behind the writing of the Bible, and it really is his word, not man's. In a future chapter, we will discuss the question of prophecy, but first let us consider miracles. Is it reasonable in this 20th century to believe that in earlier centuries miracles did happen?
Next week, we start in on miracles. So far, all this chapter managed to do is demonstrate that Jesus probably existed and that some of the Christian Greek writers knew him personally. Not much else was proved.