There was a time in the 20th century when the higher critics argued that the gospels were the results of a long process of formation within the early Christian communities, and that they therefore had little to tell us about the historical Jesus but a lot to tell us about the evolving experience of those communities. This aligned nicely with intellectual trends that located the authority for the church’s teaching in reflection on the church’s ever-changing experience in the present rather than on a body of doctrine grounded in writings handed down from the past. The idol of ‘relevance’ trumped revelation – and the rest is history, as they say – the history of the church’s growing irrelevance.
This view of the gospels’ genesis still has its adherents, and it lingers on vaguely in popular skepticism, and in the deplorable lazy subjectivism of many Christians – ‘the real Jesus is unknowable, so we can all think as we like’; but the argument among scholars has moved on, for various reasons. First, there is no evidence for this long process of formation in the abundance of ancient manuscripts. If there was such a long development, we should expect some surviving earlier versions of the gospels that differ significantly from the later ones (aside from minor editorial tweaking and scribal glossing). There are none. The exception that proves the rule is the “woman taken in adultery”: the manuscripts show that this was a detached bit of tradition that floated around for quite a while, before coming to rest as John 7:53-8:11. But that’s it. The so-called “lost gospels” are later concoctions without value as evidence for the historic Jesus and his disciples.
The argument for a late date after long development depends then on internal evidence; but the arguments from internal evidence are questionable. It was often said, for instance, that the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke show that they must have been composed after those events in A. D. 70. But even setting aside the anti-supernaturalist premise of that argument, the actual text of those prophecies is consistent with the tradition of biblical prophecy, in which the first destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 B.C. featured so prominently. Even from an anti-super-naturalist point of view, it is entirely plausible that someone like Jesus could have made such prophecies; just as it is plausible that other prophets also made prophecies that were not preserved, because they did not come to pass. These are not grounds for a late date.
There is another argument from internal evidence that depends on certain assumptions about the development of religion. It is assumed, for instance, the obviously supernatural elements of the Scriptures must have emerged later – such as the teaching about Christ’s resurrection. Yet here the internal evidence actually runs the other way. St. Paul’s epistles – which are dateable to the 50s A.D. – show no sign of any such struggle. The resurrection of Jesus is not only an accepted fact without opposition in the early church; it is the indispensable impetus for the entire enterprise. Though written twenty years after the death of Jesus, it is implausible that they reflect anything but a deeply rooted conviction of everyone in the earliest Christian community. The evidence of Paul’s letters therefore argues in favor of an earlier rather than later dating for the gospels; which leaves no time for a long process of development; and strengthens their value as evidence for the beliefs of the people who actually knew Jesus.
Other arguments from internal evidence favor a close connection to the historic Jesus. It has been demonstrated that the gospels conform to the conventions of eyewitness testimony discovered in the scientific study of oral tradition. To give just one example, when Mark or Luke mention figures apparently known only to their immediate audiences, these names are probably functioning much the way footnotes do in modern history or biography, as a way of anchoring their account in verifiable sources.
Like any great work of history or biography the gospels are not just collections of facts, but profound reflections – and their case, theological reflections – on the significance of those facts. Yet while debates about their origin and dating will continue as they should; it is no longer credible for people who claim to be serious about Jesus to speak of him in ways that are inconsistent with the gospels’ witness. If we know Jesus, we know him not by reflection on our own experience, but through the authoritative witness of the gospel. If you are serious about Jesus, then you will be serious about the gospels also.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, April 25, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.