On the Reliability of the Gospels, Especially Mark

(Extracted from Dave Black Online, March 17, 2015. Used by permission.)

11:44 PM Just wanted to say hello before going to bed tonight. I spent a few days in the Dallas area over the weekend, primarily to attend a conference sponsored by Brite Divinity School and featuring Adela Yarbro Collins of Yale. Her topic was the Gospel of Mark, which happens to be the current subject of investigation for my book on the kingdom. The lecture was less stimulating that I had expected. Perhaps my expectations were misplaced. I was hoping for a rigorous reassessment of the faith claims of the Gospel of Mark in a way that laypeople unfamiliar with New Testament scholarship could understand. To be sure, Collins touched on this subject tangentially, but the majority of her lecture repeated well-known assertions about Mark — Mark is our earliest Gospel, the words “Son of God” (1:1) were added later, the last twelve verses of Mark are inauthentic, the Messianic Secret is the interpretive key to understanding this Gospel, etc. Given that the final verses of Mark have now been given a definitive defense I was surprised at how unpersuasive Collins was in trying to refute it. Moreover, I didn’t find any of her objections to the historicity of Mark’s account plausible. Jesus Christ is the most remarkable individual who ever lived. Nobody else can even remotely match His record in terms of literature, health, education, music, and so forth. Those of us who are not put off by the testimonies of the evangelists know that in Him we have found the way of salvation and true life. When there is reason to think that an evangelist has placed words in Jesus’ mouth, it can be interesting to decide whether our suspicions are based on facts or suppositions. Readers of this blog will realize that I write from a less skeptical viewpoint than that. Indeed, the more difficult a saying of Jesus seems to be (e.g., the famous “I am” sayings of John), the more likely they are to be original in my view. I applaud much of Collins’ exegesis of various passages in Mark that explain why Mark’s Gospel reads like Mark’s Gospel. But none of these conclusions satisfies the main question of interpretation, so her exegesis misses the mark. Most importantly, when she says “You can’t point to anything in the Gospel of Mark and say, ‘This is what Jesus said or did,'” her conclusion is, in my opinion, completely without merit. Given the fact that many New Testament scholars have affirmed the historical reliability of the eyewitness testimony of the evangelists, I feel justified in relying on the Gospel records as the most complete and authenticate records in all of human history. This means that the New Testament does indeed provide us with an answer to our most important question — who is Jesus Christ? Ultimately, He is who He said He was — the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. It strikes me as more humble and more reasonable to assume that if the early church didn’t see contradictions between the Gospels, we shouldn’t either. Let me add that I do not for one minute suggest that the Gospels are above rigorous academic investigation. I realize that it is often asserted that the Gospels are unreliable. My point is that no arguments to date have, in my view, been cogent enough to make them stick. If this makes me an inerrantist, so be it. Former ICBI president (and fellow Basler) James Montgomery Boice once wrote:

Members of the Council believe that they are simply calling a mountain a mountain and think it is reasonable to expect that the ICBI will be a unifying force within evangelicalism, as it encourages Christian brothers and sisters to stand for the only objective basis of a sure foundation from God there is — inerrancy.

Bless God for the light He has given us in the Scriptures for our journey through this dark world!

Gospel Dates in Relation to Philippians

7:16 PM Mark over at Alternation continues his excellent discussion of the book of Philippians, which we are now studying in Greek 3. His current passage is 1:12-18. In verse 14 Paul refers to the “word” which the Romans believers were speaking boldly and fearlessly. Concerning this word, Mark states:

The word is not yet written down in the four Gospels or any creed, but it has been summarized in creed-like confessions and hymns, and is contained in a recognized body of traditional teaching.

This view is, of course, possible, but it is my contention (as argued in Why Four Gospels?) that the Gospel of Matthew was written within 10 years of the resurrection and that Paul quite possibly had a copy of it with him on his missionary journeys. It’s a fascinating hypothesis, isn’t it, that Paul may have actually possessed a copy of the First Gospel in his hands and that he may have alluded to or quoted from it in his earliest writings (e.g., 1 Thessalonians). I imagine that very few students today realize that there is more than a handful of sound arguments for this theory. Mark’s point nevertheless holds:

The word they are speaking is the story of Jesus Christ, how he defeated sin, death, and hatred by enduring them on the cross and rising again, how he will come again to finish the work of transforming all creation into the place where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, and how he empowers his followers through the Spirit of God to live a life that is a foretaste of and witness to the glory and victory that is to come.

And that is very well put.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission)

The Church Fathers and Study of the Gospels

5:50 AM I’m glad to see that the Gospel of Mark is being discussed on several blogs these days. The latest hubbub seems to have to do with something called Mark’s “community.” However, the elephant in the room, it seems to me, is the absence of any discussion of the church fathers. Of course, a full account of the patristic testimony would fill several volumes. I have made a partial case for Mark’s Sitz im Leben in my book Why Four Gospels? Sadly, the patristic evidence is today hardly known in New Testament scholarship, although everyone claims to regard it with a certain respect. The average person doesn’t have a clue because he or she hasn’t done the reading. Such investigation would raise questions too complex — and perhaps too uncomfortable — for the sort of subjective and superficial overview one finds in the typical New Testament Introduction. I myself was ill-taught in this respect while in seminary. Not once were we asked to crack open a patristic tome, and thus I was ill prepared for vigorous debate on the subject. I don’t mean to imply that students of the Gospels know absolutely nothing about the fathers. Certain New Testament scholars were famous for their knowledge (e.g., William Farmer). To become familiar with the field would ask a lot of your average student of the Gospels. In the eyes of some, I suppose, any interaction with the fathers is a subversive menace to the status quo. Those who (like myself) hold to somewhat traditional views of authorship and provenance are sometimes subjected to ad hominem innuendo (“Why Dave, you must be a Catholic!”). Merely questioning the consensus opinio can get you into hot water from the establishment. None of this is challenged front and center by the mainstream academy. Thus protected from all the evidence, many of our students have bought into what I consider to be a highly defective product. To call this merely a “bias” against the fathers is to understate the belligerent emotionality one sometimes encounters. The grain of truth which is the Markan Priority Hypothesis should not mean that we accept the theory without questioning it (the existence of “Q” alone should cause one to pause).

So let the discussion continue and expand. It certainly will in my New Testament classes, where students are exposed to the Mark-Q Hypothesis, Mark Without Q, the Two Gospel Hypothesis, and even the position espoused by their professor (the Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis) — testing and thinking and pondering before coming to a conclusion, their own conclusion. Enough of this, however. I’ve got to get to campus for grading and for two commencement services. Heartiest congratulations to all of our graduates and especially to my doctoral student Alex Stewart as well as my pastor Jason Evans who also will be receiving his doctoral hood today. Well done, one and all.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission)

Embellishing Stories

4:45 PM If you are a Civil War buff (as I am you) have probably seen the movie Gettysburg starring Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee and Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain. There’s an unforgettable scene that takes place on the first day of battle. Union cavalry General John Reynolds is in the copula of the Lutheran Theological Seminary when General John Reynolds of the Union I Corps rides up. “Thank God,” says a tearful Buford. “What goes, John?” asks Reynolds. “There’s a devil to pay,” replies Buford. “Can you hold?” inquires Reynolds. “I reckon I can,” says Buford. At this point, Buford descends from the copula and the two generals ride off toward the sound of battle on McPherson’s Ridge.

Continue reading “Embellishing Stories”

Motivation for Matthew

10:12 AM On the original motivation for Matthew:

As soon as the first wave of converts had been baptized and their instruction organized by the Twelve, the apostles’ thoughts turned to the practical question of how to unify and consolidate their teaching about Jesus. The apostles realized that they somehow needed to promulgate those passages of the Holy Scriptures from “Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27) that Jesus had explained to Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. It also became clear to them that their main apologetic task was to demonstrate to the Jewish authorities that Jesus had literally fulfilled all the prophecies about the Messiah. These considerations were the original motivation for the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.

From Why Four Gospels?

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission. David Alan Black is author of Energion titles The Jesus Paradigm, Christian Archy, and Why Four Gospels?.)