I recently came across a post called The Gospels are Unreliable and the Gospel Jesus is Not a Historical Person on a blog named Academic Atheism. The author of the blog does not provide their name but seems to be well educated. The author may be well read in philosophy but the post makes a number of significant mistakes.
In this post, I will address the concerns of the author and attempt to provide some more information.
There is Consensus That the Gospels are Unreliable
The author makes the following claim:
Are the Gospels historically reliable? The answer is a resounding no and this much is admitted by the consensus.
Claiming to be an academic, you would hope for a reference for this claim. The author does provide a reference and it is to a blog post by a classics major. Not a Bible scholar. I have two graduate degrees in biblical studies and I have never heard of this consensus that the Gospels are unreliable. There are scholars who believe the Gospels are completely reliable, a wide range of somewhat reliable and some who see it as completely unreliable. I would say that the majority of biblical scholars would say that the Gospels have some historical value.
As a side note, the only thing like a consensus I have seen among New Testament scholars is that Jesus existed.
Questions About Authorship
The author notes that the canonical Gospels are technically anonymous. By anonymous, what is meant is that none of the Gospels mention the name of the writer in the text.
First, if the Gospels did have names attached to them, they would be accused of being falsely attributed. This is what scholars do with the non-canonical gospels, such as Thomas and others, that make a big deal of who they are written by in order to create some authority.
Secondly, this does nothing to diminish the historical value of the Gospels. It is possible that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (although I think a good case can be made for traditional authorship) and they would still be good sources. They should be judged by the nature of the texts and how close they are to events.
Genre of the Gospels
The author has some serious concerns about the genre of the Gospels. The author states:
This is the arguably the primary reason they’re historically unreliable: they don’t even qualify as historical accounts in the first place. If we cannot establish that these are historical accounts, then we can’t even begin to talk about whether they’re historically reliable.
In this, the author is relying on the classics major mentioned earlier. The definition that he gives seems specifically aimed at “ancient historical prose.” I have read ancient historical writings that do not meet his criteria. The difference seems to be that there are historical writings and there are writings that are the genre of history. Having studied ancient history, including classics, it is clear that other historical writings often are more accurate than an official history. Historians never rely completely on a history when reconstructing events.
Having said that, the author is wrong in suggesting that the alternative to history must be a novel. There was a time when scholars considered novels as a possible genre for the Gospels but that has been overturned with the research of Richard Burridge and his book, What Are the Gospels? Burridge has demonstrated convincingly that the Gospels belong to the genre of the ancient bios or what we would call a biography or life. Such biographies include history without belonging to the genre of history.
Missing External Attestation
The author has a lengthy section dealing with the supposed lack of external attestation for the Gospels. I would say that if we were dealing with any other historical figure, the four Gospels and Paul’s letter would be more than enough to satisfy a historian.
I am not going to tackle the Roman writers or the Talmud as I do not think they are that important. I will, however respond to what he says about Josephus.
When it comes to the Testamonium Flavianum, the passage in Antiquities, the author states:
There isn’t much debate about it’s authenticity.
For once we agree but I think we might disagree on the nature of the lack of debate. The author would have us believe that what is fully agreed on is that it is a complete Christian forgery. The problem is that scholars, both conservative and liberal, are almost completely agreed that Josephus said something about Jesus with a Christian having later added to it. The author claims that Richard Carrier “put the last nail in the coffin” of the TF. Carrier may have given his opinion on the issue, but I have not seen it have any effect on what scholars generally believe. In fact, I will say that I have never come across a scholar who dismisses the TF who wasn’t a Jesus Mythicist. It seems that unless you are already committed to Jesus not existing, that the TF continues to have historical value.
None of this is meant to attack the author as a person. However, their article does not really represent what scholarship has to say and people deserve to get the rest of the story.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.