In a couple of weeks, I’ll begin Advanced Introduction to the New Testament, a fitting followup to my first class. As a history and theology “major” (that’s sooo undergrad), I’m very interested in the historicity of scripture – what actually happened and to what extent. In the Old Testament, much of that is unanswerable.
As I understand it, the concept of history came into its own by the time of Christ, and I’ve assumed these several months that the New Testament is more historically accurate than the Old, but I don’t really know that, and it’s a little scary to think of what other assumptions I have about the lives of Christ and his followers that aren’t correct.
For example, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, in this CNN.com column seems to take aim at the historicity of some of what we might consider the crucial elements of Jesus’ life on earth:
Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.
Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
How much of Jesus’ story are we willing to reject historically and still be able to maintain the Christian faith?