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CAN WE TRUST THE NEW TESTAMENT?
I was young to the faith I was taught some very simple things about the Bible.
I was told it was inerrant (which means free of error), infallible (incapable
of being wrong in regards to questions of faith and God), and that it was God's
divinely inspired revelation to us. It was His "Word" and, as such,
something to be treated with reverence and awe. Reading its pages was the same
as reading a note personally written by God, or so I was led to believe.
Today, however, I no longer hold to that position. While I still respect the twenty-seven books that compose the New Testament canon, today I take a much more skeptical view of this body of work and see it as less the work of God than the creation of man. This doesn't make it automatically wrong or render the wisdom it contains within it irrelevanttruth, after all, is always true regardless of its sourcebut it should encourage us to take a much more objective look at these books before we decide to commit our lives to what they teach. To do that, however, will require that we learn a few things about the New Testament writings beyond which is generally taught in Sunday school, for only in that way will we be able to make a solid, informed decision and base our beliefs on something more closely resembling knowledge rather than on pure presumption. I do this not in an effort to impinge upon the integrity of the books of the NT or the church upon which it is built, but to give my readers another perspective to consider when weighing the value of their traditional faith in light of the spiritual journey they have undertaken. Only in knowing the facts about the Bible can any honest decisions be made as to whether these books are to be taken along on that journey.
Mercifully, this is not designed as some scholastic treatise that would be of interest mainly to budding theologians and academicians (which is fortunate considering my own conspicuous lack of such credentials), but as a plain language learning tool designed for those who may have some knowledge of their faith but would like to know more. Additionally, while much of what I write here is controversial and still subject to ongoing debate to this day, everything I write is supported by some very solid scholarship. Further, this work is far from exhaustive and complete; there are lots of questions left unanswered and whole areas left untouched, but that is where I invite the reader to explore these subjects more thoroughly on their own. My purpose here is to paint the most basic picture for you by sketching only a rough outline of what I've learned about the Bible over several years of study; you will have to fill in the missing pieces on your own, just as I had to. And, of course, if you come across something that you disagree with or are unsure of, shoot me an e-mail so we can discuss it. I'm always open to a good, spirited debate as long as it remains friendly and honest, and I promise not to froth at the mouth if you tell me I'm full of beans.
out of the way, let me start by describing what I believe to be the traditional,
orthodox (or fundamentalist) perspective on the New Testament. (Please note
that I am confining our study to only the twenty-seven books that constitute
the New Testament for two reasons: first, to do even a superficial study of
the Old Testament would make this article impossibly long and, second, because
it is these books that constitute the foundation of Christianity. While the
Old Testament books are important in laying the groundwork for the New, they
are not Christian writings but Jewish texts and need to be examined from that
perspective to better understand the cultural context from which they were produced.
As such, for the purpose of this study, we will consider only the writings that
are exclusively Christian in nature and character.) The fundamentalist position
regarding these writings has been and continues to be that with the exception
of the Book of Revelations and perhaps a few other minor works, the New Testament
was largely written within a few decades of Jesus of Nazareth's death by the
men who's names are affixed to the various works. As such, it is thought that
the disciple Matthew actually penned the Gospel of Matthew and John genuinely
wrote the books ascribed to him, making them, essentially, eye witnesses to
the events described within them. It's also generally believed that the quotations
attributed to Jesus are, for the most part, authentic sayings recorded with
remarkable (and, some would say, Divine) accuracy and that the miracles described
in these books (mostly confined to the four gospels) are literal historical
events (as opposed to allegories or metaphors). Further, while the Gospels are
acknowledged as containing a number of parables and teaching stories, it is
generally considered to be a historically accurate and a loosely chronological
narrative of the high-points of Jesus' ministry as well as an accurate record
of his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Since it is believed to
have been written so soon after the tumultuous events of Jesus short ministry,
it is thought that this reduces the chance of mythology and error entering the
mix since most of the disciples would have still been around to correct any
discrepancies, making it a reliable and authoritative document that one can
trust to base their life and eternal fate upon. Additionally, it is believed
that the NT books were shepherded through a long and careful process
of reproduction and correction by scrupulously honest church fathers working
through the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ensure the purity and correctness
of each book. Further, it is believed these same early scholars also protected
the NT from error by purging the most pernicious and heretical texts from consideration
through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, allowing them to finally produce the
very end result God had envisioned when He initially inspired its writers to
first put pen to paper. The NT, then, is seen as something of a miracle in its
own right in how it was able to maintain the purity of God's revelation of Himself
in the face of all the obstacles the Devil had supposedly thrown up against
This, at least, has been the standard "party line" for nearly seventeen hundred years until late in the nineteenth century when something called "form criticism" emerged from the halls of academia that threatened to overturn the traditional understanding of "God's Word." A new and more scientific method of examining ancient texts, form criticism looked at the Bible not from the perspective of it being a holy and sacred document containing the direct revelation of God to man, but as a purely historical document, thereby permitting it to be subject to the same processes used to determine the historical accuracy and method of production as would be used on any ancient document. Fortunately, by this time the prospect of being burned at the stake for such a thing was remotegiving academia some much needed freedombut even more importantly, additional ancient manuscriptssome dating to within a few hundred years of the time of Jesushad been uncovered, affording scholars the opportunity to compare the ancient texts to each other in their original form to determine how much they may have been amended or changed over the years. Further, the accumulation of knowledge permitted scholars to compare the philosophical and moral teachings of the NT writings to those of other cultures, religions, and philosophies throughout history to determine if they contained original ideas or had borrowed from other sources. In this way it could be determined whether the New Testament really contained a fresh and unique message or whether it was simply a rehash of earlier religious and philosophical beliefs molded to fit the needs and perspectives of a particular culture. And, finally, since each author has a unique style of writing as individual and unique as fingerprints, it was also possible to see if all the books ascribed to a particular author were, in fact, penned by them or whether others were perhaps involved. In other words, form criticism put the Bible under the harsh glare of academic scrutiny, not in an effort to destroy it but in an effort to understand it.
So what did these scholars discover? Quite a bit, it turns out; unfortunately, much of it was at variance with the traditional perspective on the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular, creating a fire storm that continues to rage to this day. The first thing modern scholarship determined is that the bulk of scripture was written considerably later than conservatives have traditionally been willing to allow for. Also, and even more controversial, scholars are generally agreed that with the exception of some of the letters attributed to the apostle Paul, almost none of the books of the NT were likely actually penned by the people whose names are on them. In fact, it is almost impossible to determine who wrote any particular book in the Bible or when, making their usual designations as being the Gospel "of Matthew" or "of John" more a matter of tradition than fact. This, unfortunately, compromises much of the Bible's authority, creating something of a "crisis of faith" to those for whom inerrancy is a prerequisite to belief.
For example, conservative theologians have traditionally assigned a date of about 60 A.D. for the Book of Matthew, and believed it was actually written by the disciple mentioned in the Gospels as "Matthew the publican" (tax collector). Liberal scholars, however, have demonstrated that "Matthew's Gospel" is essentially an expansion based in part upon the earlier gospel of Markwhich they generally agree to have been written sometime around 70 A.D.thus assigning Matthew a date closer to 80-85 A.D. Additionally, they can find no evidence to suggest it was written by the real Matthew (if, indeed, such a man actually existed.) Instead, in being an expansion of Mark along with some earlier scattered writings, it was thought more likely to have been written by some unknown Jewish Christian as a means of introducing Hebrew prophecy into the Markian account (which omits not only any reference to ancient prophecy but even lacks a birth story for Jesus or any mention of a resurrectionoversight Matthew's author took care of.) Further, the Gospel of Lukethe third of the synoptic Gospels (often attributed to the compatriot of Paul's named Luke mentioned in Acts)does much the same thing that the author of Matthew did. He, too, incorporates bits and pieces of Mark's Gospel (also of unknown authorship) along with some elements present in Matthew's account and some new material unique to both accounts to create a Gospel that would seem to appeal more to a Greek audience than a Jewish one. In doing so, however, Luke has a completely different birth narrative than the one Matthew used (along with an entirely different genealogy for Joseph) and other details both Mark and Matthew seem to have overlooked. Other stories and sayings common to all three gospels also sometimes lack consistency and fail to agree on vital details (such as the discovery of the empty tomb and resurrection appearances of Jesus) while at other times it appears Luke is quoting almost verbatim from Mark and Matthewevidence of a common source being used by all three authors. Then, along toward the last few years of the first century (or early in the second depending upon which scholar you appeal to) we have the appearance of the Gospel of John; an account which has almost nothing in common with the other three gospels and contains a great deal of fresh material and never-before seen details absent in the other accounts. The implication, of course, is that we have a wide range of divergent and sometimes contradictory source materials the gospel writers are cutting and pasting from according to their needs and theological bent. This doesn't necessarily mean that all of the accounts they record are works of fiction, but it does make it difficult to know which is the more accurate and, further, begs the question as to why there is not more agreement between them if they are all reporting on the same events.
So how do conservatives or Bible innerrantists answer these allegations resulting from the process of form criticism? Generally, they are not bothered by them, and have developed an entire theology (known as apologetics) designed to challenge them. For example, conservatives simply disagree with modern scholarship's dating of the Gospels, feeling the later dates are purely biased, subjective opinion (as if their positions aren't) with no supporting evidence. And as far as the Gospels being written by men other than those traditionally credited, they discount that as well, accusing scholars of attempting to discredit the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts by making the writers anonymous, as opposed to eye-witnesses or second-hand reporters as has been traditionally maintained.
But it is in answering the discrepancies that fundamentalists really shine, for here they can't simply deny that such appear to exist, but only that they appear that way as a result of the different writer's styles and emphasis rather than any genuine contradictions in the accounts. In effect, the argument goes, if the accounts agreed in all aspects one might suspect collusion, and since they are believed to have been penned by both eye witnesses (Matthew and John) and some reporting second-hand (Mark and Luke)one would naturally expect some diversity of detail, thus supposedly giving the accounts increased authenticity. Conservatives, it appears, seem to want it both ways: on the one hand they can use the "fuzziness" of the details as evidence no collusion was occurring while at the same time noting how well the various details agree with each other, thus demonstrating the authenticity of the incidents described. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that it is precisely this sort of lack of consistency that makes one suspect fabrication. To better illustrate the problem, imagine four witnessestwo supposed eye witnesses and two reporting second-handwho each produce affidavits affirming that their neighbor, Bob, robbed the local bank. Now while all four accounts agree that Bob did, in fact, rob the bank, their accounts vary significantly in regards to the details. For example, one account has him accompanied by his brother Joea seemingly important fact the other accounts completely omit. Further, two of the four accounts have him exiting the bank from the back door while the others insist he came out the front, and three of the four accounts agree he was armed but the fourth fails to mention any weapon at all. The fourth account, however, does add the interesting detail that describes Bob tripping the alarm and having to outrun the security guardsanother seemingly significant event the other three reports fail to mention. In fact, there are a number of such inconsistencies running throughout the narratives of greater or lesser significance, yet together they are enough to have Bob arrested and brought to trial.
But what would you make of all this if you were sitting on the jury? Did Boband maybe his brother Joepull the heist or not? One might well conclude that "something" apparently happened, and probably Bob had something to do with it, but the inconsistencies make getting to the truth difficult. Would you then be more likely to just assume the witnesses, being fallible, had merely gotten a few of their facts mixed up and vote guilty, or would you decide the story contained so many discrepancies that you felt compelled to vote for acquittal? Remember, a man's life hangs in the balance, there is no physical evidence tying Bob to the crime, and all the damning evidence comes from two eye witnessesboth of whom fail to agree with each other on several key detailsand two second hand witnesses who are only describing what others have told them happened. I don't know about you, but I would personally feel much better about voting guilty if the witnesses stories agreed with each other a bit more. As it is, in a modern trial, I suspect the case would be thrown out for insufficient evidence. Yet this is precisely what happens with the Gospel accounts. Details are omitted from one account that pop up in another, elements are juxtaposed or subtly different in each telling, and out and out contradictions and inconsistencies occur with great regularity. It seems a shaky ground upon which to build one's faith, but such is the type of real estate upon which hundreds of millions of Christians over the ages have built their fortresses and many continue to do so today.
Another element of confusion about the New Testament is its layout. It is generally assumed, because of their prominent placement first among the New Testament books, that the four gospels were written first and the other writings that followed came later (or, at best, came in to being about the same time). As such, it appears Paul's letters and those that follow from other "lesser" writers are attempts to explain and expand upon the Gospel narrativessort of like Gospel commentaries. In reality, even conservative theologians agree that Paul of Tarsus likely wrote his letters (about six of the eleven he is credited with are usually considered authentically Pauline in origin, the others being later additions) years before any of the Gospels were penned. Why is that important? Because if Paul wrote first, how much of what is contained in the Gospels are influenced by Paul's original theology? In other words, instead of Paul being influenced by the Gospels, how much of what was later written in the Gospels was instead heavily influenced by Paul? In effect, could Paula man who had never met Jesus in the flesh, never witnessed one of his miracles, and never heard him teach a wordhave been the true originator of the religion we call Christianity and the balance of the New Testament writings but attempts to validate his original thesis? It's an interesting premise that requires considerable thought for, if true, it radically impacts how the faith is perceived in general. If it is based not upon Jesus' sayings and miracles but on Paul's understanding of God, it seems that everything must be reconsidered. That, at least, would seem to be the natural assumption.
Other elements of the Bible that I found interesting was the fact that the two letters thought to have been written by the apostle Peter appear to be much later forgeries (compare 2nd Peter and Jude to get some idea of why scholars are suspicious.) Also, whoever wrote the Gospel of John was not the same person who wrote the three letters attributed to him later in the Bible, and it certainly was not the same person who wrote the Book of Revelationsanother controversial book traditionally assigned to the prodigious disciple (in fairness it should be noted that even many conservative scholars are coming to the conclusion that the author of Revelations is a different John, though they still generally hold to the author of the Gospel of John to have been the actual disciple.)
Finally we come to the issue of how the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were chosen to be alone designated as "inspired scripture." The traditional idea that it was a divinely led process marked by considerable unanimity of opinion is pure revisionist history. The process, in fact, was anything but. It was, by all accounts, a tumultuous affair driven more by political agendas, personal ambition, and power plays than theological discourse.
The fact of the matter is that there were numerous supposedly inspired writings in circulation in the fourth century A.D. when work began in earnest on bringing the canonical books together, as well as several different perspectives on the nature of Jesus Christ and His relationship to the Father in vogue as well. Immense schisms existed within even the conservative branches of Christianity (usually centered around the teachings of various bishops and other church leaders.) In the midst of all this was the largely apathetic emperor Constantine looking only to bring some unity and cohesion to the Empire, realizing, quite correctly, that a unified church would be more useful to him as a tool of power than a splintered, divided church. Alliances were formed and the stronger elements of the church subjugated the weaker or less organized elements. Overnight bishops who had endured persecution for years over their faith found themselves suddenly declared heretics and their writings banned by those who just a few years earlier were considered fringe elements of the faith. Gnostic ideas and writings were similarly ruthlessly suppressed and their leaders driven underground or imprisoned. In the end only the doctrines and dogmas of the victors emerged to be considered orthodoxy and everything else was either burned, banned, or shunned. Possibly many hundreds of manuscripts were lost to history forever, and many of the writings that avoided the flames were dismissed as the uninspired and spurious works of apostates and heretics. By the time Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410 A.D. and the Catholic Popes arose to replace the Roman Emperors as the single voice of power in Europe, the debate had been settled and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were set. The canon (the term for those books deigned divinely inspired) was closed. God had spoken and was to speak no more, except through these chosen documents of the modern Bible.
As such, there was no real consensus of what books belonged in the Bible and which didn't. Some books that had been considered divinely inspired for centuries found themselves being thrown out while othersmost notably among them the Book of Revelationsthat had been considered spurious for centuries somehow made the final "cut." Anything that didn't conform to what was now considered "orthodoxy" was suppressed and, in the case of a few New Testament books, even amended to conform with the "correct" theology (for example, the last twelve verses of Mark's Gospel did not exist in the earliest manuscripts but was a later additiona point acknowledged even within the footnotes of modern Bibles.) Therefore the modern Bible, far from being a compendium of Christian thought, is, in fact, a tribute to the cunning determination of one branch of Christianity to dominate the church in totality. Of course, this doesn't, in itself, make the books of the New Testament void. They do, for the most part, largely reflect the bulk of orthodox belief of the age though not, certainly, all of it. Yet it makes the belief in the NT as being God's divinely inspired revelation of Himself to mankind ring hollow, especially when one considers the very unChristlike methodology and outright dishonesty used in putting it together. Further, this doesn't mean it isn't still useful to one's spiritual journeythere is, after all, much of value that did survive within its pagesbut it must be seen for what it is: a very human and, in some ways, fallible document of great importance and value.
It is only in seeing it clearly for what it is that we can begin to understand the core principles and moral lessons it teaches. Something doesn't need to be literally true to be "inspired" (see Dicken's A Christmas Carol by way of example) nor does something being historically accurate make it divinely inspired. Truth resides in many guises and in numerous books of which the Bible is only one. The truth it conveys, however, is lost once one decides its truth is the only truth that can or does exist. Then, far from being a resource for spiritual growth, it becomes an impediment to growth and that's something I imagine God would never intend for His "inspired" book.
In reality, God can speak through any written document He chooses, written through anyone He so deigns, and at any time of His choosing, because as we are all but reflections of the Divine, in effect that makes every book "divinely inspired." Not necessarily literally true or historically accurate or even, for that matter, correct, yet all of it is a product of the cosmic consciousness that permeates the cosmos and as such all of it is holy. Even those writings we consider profane or inflammatory or even nonsensical are to be understood as the voice of "God" speaking as an expression of the human condition and spiritual angst of our age. The words and the thoughts they express may be hurtful or harmful or even dangerous, but they are all expressions of the divine that exists in all men and women and need to be considered as such. Weighed through the litmus test of spiritual truth, whether they contain wisdom or folly will be quickly determined and only then should they be embraced or discarded as love and logic would dictate. Only in this way can truth be found in its many guises and fear and error clearly seen for what it is and discarded. If such a methodology was applied to all writingincluding those of the "holy books" we revere as a culturehistory would have taken a far different tact and sincere but deluded men and women of many faiths would not today be holding their sacred texts over each other like finely sharpened swords.
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