Conservative (Protestant) Christianity rises or falls on the the historical reliability of the Gospels, in particular, the historical reliability of the stories about the alleged bodily resurrection of Jesus. But just how historically reliable are these four books (and the Book of Acts, since most scholars believe it was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke) if even prominent conservative Protestant and evangelical scholars assert that these books may contain fictional accounts?
Richard Bauckham, conservative Protestant scholar–believes that Matthew the Apostle did not write the Gospel of Matthew and believes that the story of the calling of Matthew the tax collector is invented fiction:
“The most plausible explanation of the occurrence of the name Matthew in [Matthew] 9:9 is that the author of this Gospel, knowing that Matthew was a tax collector and wishing to narrate the call of Matthew in the Gospel that was associated with him, but not knowing a story of Matthew’s call, transferred Mark’s story of Levi to Matthew. The story, after all, is so brief and general it might well be thought appropriate to any tax collector called by Jesus to follow him as a disciple. There is one feature of Matthew’s text that helps to make this explanation probable. In Mark, the story of Levi’s call is followed by a scene in which Jesus dines with tax-collectors (Mark 2:15-17). Mark sets this scene in “his house”, which some scholars take to mean Jesus’ house, but could certainly appropriately refer to Levi’s house. In Matthew’s Gospel, the same passage follows the narrative of the call of Matthew, but the scene is set simply in “the house” (Matthew 9:10). Thus, this Evangelist has appropriated Mark’s story of the call of Levi, making it a story of Matthew’s call instead, but has not continued this appropriation by setting the following story in Matthew’s house. He has appropriated for Matthew only as much of Mark’s story of Levi as he needed.” (bolding, Gary’s) —“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, p.111
Michael Licona, conservative evangelical scholar–who believes that Matthew’s “Dead Saints Shaken out of the Tombs” story may be fictional:
51 and the earth shook and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were opened,
and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and
coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city
and appeared to many. —Gospel of Matthew
“John lists none of the phenomena. Matthew’s report of the raised saints has baffled scholars for years, leaving several questions. Did Matthew intend for his report to be understood literally, allegorically, or otherwise? Or is it legend that Matthew included or invented (a la Bultmann)? Were the saints raised at Jesus’ death or resurrection? Were the saints raised in their same mortal body only to die again as was Lazarus or in resurrection bodies? Who were these saints?
…We have seen that it’s possible Matthew has already employed celestial language to be interpreted as apocalyptic symbols in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. The same may be said of the celestial phenomena tied to the Pentecost event in Acts 2 where Luke seems to link the wonders in the sky and signs on the earth prophesied by Joel to the wonders and signs performed by Jesus and His apostles, even using the same terms in the same context to describe them. Yet, Joel lists these as blood, fire, vapor of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon turning into blood. But these phenomena apparently did not occur on that day. Moreover, Joel as repeated by Peter says that in that day “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Luke then reports Peter encouraging the Jews to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. Then he reports that about 3,000 believed that day. Thus, Peter appears to believe the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost. Accordingly, it’s reasonable to hold that Joel and Luke intended for these celestial phenomena to be understood as apocalyptic symbols for the divine acts witnessed at Pentecost—specifically the speaking in tongues—without intending for readers to interpret them in a literal sense. It’s somewhat similar to us saying the events of 9/11 were “earthshaking.” Far be it for a historian a thousand years from now to conclude that an earthquake occurred that day that was felt around the world. Could we be making a similar mistake when reading apocalyptic language in a literal manner? Matthew 24 and Acts 2 are just two examples of what may be apocalyptic
symbols in the biblical literature.
…So, for now, I remain undecided pertaining to how Matthew intended for his readers to understand the raised saints. And I’m not alone.
…I hope that it has become clear in this paper that my intent was not to dehistoricize a text Matthew intended as historical. If I had, that would be to deny the inerrancy of the text. Instead, what I have done is to question whether Matthew intended for the raised saints to be understood historically.”
William Lane Craig, conservative evangelical historian and apologist–believes that Matthew’s Raising of the Dead Saints Story may be fictional:
Responding to Jesus Seminar fellow Robert Miller—who claimed that Matthew freely added to Mark’s Gospel the story of the resurrection of the saints, a story which Matthew did not take literally, but included it as a figurative expression of the apocalyptic significance of Jesus’ death—William Lane Craig said: “Dr. Miller’s interpretation of this passage [Matthew’s Raised Dead Saints Story] strikes me as quite persuasive, and probably only a few conservative scholars would treat the story as historical.” —“Will the Real Jesus Stand Up”, edited by Paul Copan, pp. 164-165
In a debate between conservative Christian apologist William Lane Craig and New Testament scholar James Crossley captured in this Youtube video recording here (see minute 1 hour 33 minutes) regarding the Resurrection of Jesus, Dr. Craig was asked if the passage from the Gospel of Matthew regarding the Raising of the Dead Saints should be understood literally. Craig quotes a fellow historian who believes that this passage is a legend. Craig agrees that an apocalyptic legend is a legitimate possibility…BUT…he goes on to emphasize that this event was connected to the crucifixion and therefore has nothing to do with the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He states that even if Matthew’s Raising of the Dead Saints story is legendary it wouldn’t affect the evidence for the resurrection whatsoever! What??? Actually, what it shows, Dr. Craig, is that first century Christians were perfectly capable and willing to invent stories about the events surrounding Jesus death!
Craig Blomberg, conservative evangelical scholar–questions the historicity of the Temple Curtain Splitting Story and the Raised Saints Story:
“All kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events [the temple curtain splitting and the raised saints story].” –Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (421)
NT Wright, conservative Protestant scholar–questions the historicity of several stories in the Gospels, Acts, and the Old Testament:
Wright questions the historicity of the Raised Saints Story:
“[I]t is better to remain puzzled [regarding Matthew’s Dead Saints Shaken Out of the Tombs Story] than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.” —“The Resurrection of the Son of God”, p. 636
Wright questions the historicity of the Gospel accounts of King Herod fearing that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead:
“What does this story tell us about the world of second-Temple Jewish belief? If we assume that Herod and his courtiers really did say something like this, it seems to be an exception to the general rule, that ‘the resurrection of the dead’ would happen to all the righteous dead simultaneously, not to one or two here and there. ” –“The Resurrection of the Son of God”, p. 413 (emphasis, Gary’s)
Wright questions the literal depiction of Hell in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
“I stressed in the earlier volume that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be treated precisely as a parable, not as a literal description of the after life and its possibilities. It is therefore inappropriate to use it as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ own sketching (or Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ sketching) of a standard post-mortem scenario. It is, rather, an adaptation of a well-known folk-tale, projecting the rich/poor divide of the present on to the future in order to highlight the present responsibility, and culpability, of the careless rich.” —The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 437
Wright seems to question the historicity of Jesus’ predicting his own death and resurrection:
“It is out of the question, for a start, that the disciples were simply extrapolating from the teachings of Jesus himself. One of the many curious things about Jesus’ teaching is that though resurrection was a well known topic of debate at the time we only have one short comment of his on the subject, in reply to the question from the Sadducees–a comment which is itself notoriously cryptic, like some of its companion pieces in the synoptic tradition. Apart from that, there are the short repeated predictions of Jesus’ passion and resurrection , which many of course assume are vaticinia ex eventu, and two or three other cryptic references. “ —NT Wright, Gregorianum, 2002, 83/84, 615-635
Wright also states in The Resurrection of the Son of God that he believes that the reason for the three seemingly contradictory accounts in the Book of Acts regarding what exactly the associates of Paul saw or heard on the Damascus Road is due to the author doctoring the story to stimulate the interest of the reader!
Wright believes that the Book of Daniel has a fictional setting:
“The immediate context of the passage [Daniel 12:2-3] is martyrdom: the martyrdom which occurred during the crises of the 160’s [BCE], and in particular, the martyrdom of faithful Israelites under the persecution of Atiochus Epiphanes. …considering the exilic theme of the whole book [of Daniel]—the fictive setting is of course Babylon, and the historical setting is that of the ‘continuing exile’ of 9:24, under various pagan rulers climaxing in the Syria of Antiochus—the most obvious biblical precursors are those which themselves speak of exile and restoration. —The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 113, 115 (emphasis, Gary’s)
Raymond Brown, Roman Catholic scholar (deceased)–believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (so hardly a liberal scholar) but doubted the historicity of Matthew’s Raising of the Dead Saints Story:
“I find the special material [material unique to Matthew; not found in any other gospel] that Matthew has grouped around the birth and the death of Jesus a consistency that suggests a source, but one of another nature than Mark and Q—a source that reflects popular dramatization through storytelling, much like expanded birth and passion narration ever since. …With regard to the common Synoptic passion narrative I argued that OT allusions or citations did not create the basic passion narrative sequence but helped to fill in the established, skeletal preaching outline. In the instance of the Matthean special material, however, the OT background may have actually generated the stories, eg., of the manner of Judas’ death.” –The Death of the Messiah, pp. 60-61
Gary’s Conclusion: So if even very conservative Christian scholars question the historicity of some of the stories in the Gospels, should we view the Gospels and Acts as historically reliable documents? Should we trust that every story told in these books is historically true? Or, should we treat them as we do modern works of historical fiction: We tease apart the facts from the fiction?
Isn’t it, therefore, very probable that even though Jesus was a real historical figure, that he was a first century apocalyptic preacher, that he was crucified and buried, and that shortly after his death some of his followers sincerely believed that he had appeared to them in some fashion—that the stories of walking on water, feeding thousands of people with a few fish and a few loaves of bread, healing leprosy, and stories of people seeing his walking, talking, broiled fish eating, into outer space levitating corpse is just more fiction???
End of post.