Rob Bell (in Velvet Elvis) uses the metaphor of the misuse of beliefs as a stack of bricks. If we use specific beliefs as part of a wall or tower that holds up our faith, how many bricks can be removed before our faith comes tumbling down.
I am reading a book by Richard Bauckham entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. It’s a fascinating book, but much more technical (in the sense of being written for history scholars) than I was expecting. Yet I am making my way through it. OK, it’s time for a show of hands. How many you out there have read, or heard, or participated in the following discussion as a “defense” of the Gospels:
Yes, the Gospel accounts were handed down orally across the generations, but people in that day and in that region of the world were expert at preserving oral tradition. So, while we today may not have a great accurate oral tradition of the life of, say, Woodrow Wilson, the people of 35 – 130 A.D. would have, out of experience and necessity, had much greater success in preserving the essential stories of Jesus, particularly as they were guided by the Holy Spirit.
I thought so; I know I’ve gone down this path. The problem is, that’s not what Christians believed for 1700 years. It’s not what the Bible or the Church Fathers said. The gospel of Luke opens with the following:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilius, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Likewise, the gospel of John closes with
This is the disciple [the disciple whom Jesus loved] who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Finally, several second century church authors attribute the Gospel of Mark in some way to remembrances of Peter, presumably dictated to a “Mark”, perhaps John Mark.
That is, until the revisionism of the Enlightenment and the radically modernist theologians of the 19th and 20th century, Christians largely accepted that at least two and probably three of the Gospels were not the result of decades and decades of oral tradition that was finally written down. Rather, these gospels were written by people who had confidence that their reports were based upon eyewitness testimony.
What’s going on with Bauckham, and to a similar extent N.T. Wright in his book about the Resurrection, is that a new generation of scholars is using the latest historical tools to challenge the stale orthodoxy of skepticism. Bauckham makes the case for the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. (Wright, by the way, endorses Bauckham's book.)
The question I wrestle with is: “Is this a brick or a spring?” Does it matter to our faith whether there really was a disciple named John, whom Jesus loved, and who testified, seriously and deliberately, that the events in the book of John are true? I am going to ponder this question as I finish reading Bauckham’s book, and I will return with Brick, the Sequel.
In the meantime, another book that may interest some is Three Gospels, by Reynolds Price. Price provides modern translations of both Mark and John, with the same view: that they were essentially eyewitness accounts.