Is the New Testament Historically Reliable? (Part One of Three)
The question of the reliability of the New Testaments is a crucial one: If the documents are not what they were supposed to be, or if they have been tampered with over the years, then it casts doubt into the authenticity of the text and the presentation of Jesus.
In short, if the New Testament is not to be considered historically reliable, then we have to say that we know nothing about Jesus with any certainty.
In our first part of this three part series we will look at why the New Testament came together in the first place.
It should be remembered that the New Testament is not the product of one author, but many. It contains a variety of literary types – Gospels (a presentation of Jesus’ sayings and life) histories , letters (most of which were occasional in nature and need to be interpreted differently as a result) as well as other literary forms. The New Testament is not a book in the modern sense of the word, but rather a collection. The works that were eventually contained in it were not consciously written with the idea that they would be collected into a whole – rather many were written as “one off” documents usually addressed to a specific and intended audience. This brings certain challenges in interpretation that will be the subject of a later article.
Part one will look at the question of what started the process of collecting the various parts into one cover, Part Two will look at what the criterion was for accepting or rejecting various works (and who was responsible for this), while part three will look at the question of whether or not these documents were corrupted along the way.
Why did the New Testament come together in the first place?
There were a variety of factors that came into play for various parts of the New Testament coming together as a whole. It could be argued that at first, there was no conscious need for this to happen as it was generally believed that Jesus would return quickly which would have made the a literary collection unneeded. On the other hand, even before the last document was composed, there were clear indications that there was a growing problem with those who were maintaining to be Christian, but claiming to have access to Jesus’ “secret” teachings. In short, the question of “who speaks for Christianity” and “what the message of Jesus is” became an issue very early on. The earliest and most serious challenge came from a group generally referred to as the “Gnostics.”
Gnosticism was a religious movement that most scholars believe predates Christianity. Highly syncretistic, when it encountered Christianity (or any other belief system) it attempted to reinterpret and absorb those teachings into itself.
Gnosticism in ancient times was not an organized religion in the same sense of paganism with temples and cults. Rather it was a set of ideas about spirituality that could be applied to almost anything. In this sense, it could manifest itself in a bewildering array of teachings and groups. Many of the religious groups popular in the Roman Empire referred to as “mystery cults” would have been Gnostic in nature. “Gnostic” refers to “knowledge” so at the heart of Gnosticism is the idea acquiring special knowledge could bring about spiritual enlightenment.
Gnosticism generally taught a number of things that was incompatible with early Christianity. In particular was the problem of how the physical universe was to be interpreted.
1) Gnosticism divided between spirit and matter in a way that either “matter didn’t matter” or more often, that the physical universe was considered inherently evil in nature.
2) If matter was evil then a perfect being like Christ could have never have come as a physical being, to do so would mean perfection would have been corrupted in the process.
3) This meant that Gnostics denied both the incarnation (God coming in flesh) as well as the Resurrection (Jesus rising from the dead).
Not surprisingly then, Gnosticism challenged early Christianity over the issue of who or what the nature of Jesus is. Although Gnosticism is very diverse on this question, some generalizations can be made. Most Gnostics viewed Jesus to be one of many potential messengers (called eons) which emanated from the great unknowable (and largely impersonal) Spirit of the universe. Jesus was not the perfect God, who most Gnostics would claim was unaware of the lower levels of creation anyway.
For most Gnostics creation was not the product of a supreme and loving God. Instead, lower beings (sometimes referred to as the demiurge) were responsible for the creation of the physical universe as a result of their own ignorance and wickedness. Physicality enslaved the various emanations from the divine spirit. The human spirit was one of these kind of emanations which was encased and corrupted by the physical presence of flesh. In doing so the encased emanation became unaware or “forgot” its true nature. Gnostics that had been influenced by Christianity would claim that Jesus was a messenger, purely spiritual in nature that would show the way to release the enslaved spirit so it could once again enjoy the purity of union with the original spirit. “Gnosis,” or knowledge of the true nature, allowed this to happen.
From a ethical/ behavioral point of view Gnosticism tended to go in one of two directions – Either flesh is evil and to be kept under control using extreme asceticism or Eat, live and be merry for the flesh is of no consequence! Neither of these tendencies was a hallmark of early Christianity.
New Testament References?
1 John 2: 22-23 and I John 4:2 – 3 are two passages from one of the later writings of the New Testament which are probably a direct response to Gnostic teaching.
Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2: 22-23 NIV)
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (I John 4:2-4 NIV)
Although it may have been a relatively minor thing when the Christian church remained small, the claim that the Gnostics made – that they were the recipients of the “secret” teachings of Jesus and that they represented authentic Christianity – became more problematic as time went on. Some form of a response was needed.
If the early Church did not have its hands full enough dealing with the Gnostics, another problem was brewing in Italy at around the beginning of the second century (100s AD). This was Marcion, who differed so significantly from early Christianity that his teachings were almost immediately denounced. Marcion was sometimes referred to as a Gnostic by some later theologians, but his teachings do not bear this out. What he did have in common with the Gnostics was his insistence that he and he alone, represented “authentic” Christianity.
Marcion (who died 154 AD) began teaching that the God of the Old Testament was vindictive and evil and was not related to Christ. In fact Marcion taught that the Father, whom Jesus referred to, was a completely different god. Today, Marcion would probably be declared an anti-Semite although his attitudes towards Jewish persons or “Jewishness” during his time are not unusual for a Gentile Roman.
Not surprisingly, the result Marcion’s teachings also involved the rejection of the entire Old Testament. In addition to this he also rejected a number of books and letters in current circulation as being “too Jewish.” As a result he advocated a truncated version of accepted books and letters as compared to what was generally accepted at the time.
The challenge to the church at this point of history is primarily over the question of authority. Both the Gnostics and Marcion represented significant challenges to what authentic Christianity was thought to be. The church at this point was not tremendously organized – in fact it was only very loosely so. The response to this challenge was three fold.
1) To invest authority in the local leadership (in most cases Bishops) who are designated to speak for what authentic Christianity was. The basis of this was lineage, as the Church at the early period was able to demonstrate that it’s leadership could easily be traced back to the Apostles. This was to eventually develop into the doctrine of “Apostolic Succession.”
2) To create small short statements of belief usually referred to as “Creeds.” (Latin: “Credo” I Believe.)
3) A general consensus of which documents represented authentic Christianity that will eventually become the New Testament. It later came to be referred to as the “Canon” which literally means “that which something is measured by.” The criterion for what made it into the Canon and what did not will be discussed in the next blog.
The formation of the New Testament needs to be understood as a process. The Christian Church inherited the Old Testament in the first century as one of its collections of authoritative works, but the New Testament would take some time to form. Its formation was largely due to challenges from the outside who wanted to radically re-interpret the Christian message.
It is almost ironic to the history of the New Testament canon that one of its greatest detractors, Marcion, would also become one of its greatest sources of information as to what most during his time believed the authoritative documents to be. Stay tuned – that’s where we will start next month.
By the way: This is my first blog ever – and I am writing it remembering a T-shirt I saw a couple of years ago that said “more people read this T-Shirt than your blog.”