On the Reliability of the Four Gospels
LETTER FROM ENGLAND
Debate time again in London! A year ago, your humble servant reported on his public debate with Prof. G.A. Wells, who denies Jesus’ existence (NOR, May 1993). The sponsor of that confrontation, the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, provided a second opportunity for classic Christianity and secularism to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas. So, on February 17, at the Inns of Court School of Law, Richard Cunningham, a Christian apologist, took on Darren Newman of the Central London Humanist Society. The subject: What basis for truth?
Newman commenced with the admission (seldom as clearly recognized by the modernist theologian!) that the truth of Christianity depends squarely on the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ: If it happened, Christianity is true; if not, not. Thus, all depends on the reliability of the Gospel accounts — and, according to Newman, when they are weighed in the balance, they are found wanting. Consider: (1) The four Gospels are all anonymous; from the books themselves we cannot tell who their authors were. (2) A 40-year gap separates the events they recount, including the alleged resurrection of Jesus, from the writing down of them. And we need only remind ourselves that in less time than that after the assassination of President Kennedy, myths developed concerning that event. (3) “Matthew,” “Luke,” and “John” could not possibly have been eyewitnesses, for they rely on source materials by others — and the same is probably true of “Mark.” An eyewitness has no need to consult accounts of the events he has himself observed. (4) The Gospel accounts contain doublets (e.g., the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000, obviously two confused treatments of the same alleged event) and contradictions (the Roman guard at the tomb appears in only one account and is totally ignored in the others, whereas he would surely have been mentioned by all had he really been there). (5) Detailed narratives, such as Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, are set forth which no one could have known (the disciples were asleep!). It therefore follows that the Evangelists’ accounts are not historical descriptions but literary creations. (6) A Gospel writer such as “Matthew” romanticizes by elaboration; thus, to the more simple accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion set forth by the other writers, he adds the earthquake and the saints coming forth from their graves. In light of such mythologizing, Newman has no choice but to opt (says he) for reality — the reality of humanness, as exemplified by the Humanist credo.
Richard Cunningham, who has debated widely on behalf of classical Christianity in the United Kingdom, chose not to speak to these particular points, leaving them, in effect, for the question period. For him it was dangerous to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Cunningham preferred to turn his guns on Humanism itself.
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