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Critique of New Testament Reliability and “Bias” in NT Development



The frustrated skeptic will sometimes make a sweeping assertion that the New Testament (NT) should be ignored in its entirety due to a “biased agenda” on the part of the early Church. Glenn Miller of the Wittgenstein Net: A Christian ThinkTank recently critiqued the “bias fallacy” and found it wanting. I must agree with him on this point. The skeptic who wishes to dismiss the entire NT as a “pious fraud” misunderstands the purpose and historical origins of the NT texts. Miller also makes an excellent point that if NT contradictions exist “it would still not discredit the historical basis of the NT record of the event.” We know from narrative criticism that many NT events were probably invented to tell a story about Jesus.[1] But when we are able to do so we should give the benefit of the doubt to those passages that seem historically or contextually probable.

The problem seems to lie with an irrational all or nothing approach to the NT texts. When the debate is framed politically–representing only the extreme views of both sides of the ideological spectrum–the result is often little more than a glimpse at the insecurity of the believer or the stubborn pride of the skeptic. What we need in modern criticism is less dogmatism from both extremes and more understanding of current mainstream biblical scholarship. McDowell [1976] feels that any biblical interpretation which deviates from Fundamentalist orthodoxy will result in a slippery-slope ending in agnosticism.[2] At the other extreme are a handful of dogmatic skeptics who, in their enthusiastic fantasy to bring the whole Bible crashing down around us, proceed to engage in poor exegesis and confused interpretation. Many of these “enlightened” skeptics would themselves benefit from the “trip to the library” that they advise their opponents to take!

Despite this charged atmosphere, we can still look critically at the NT and analyze those parts of it which are based in historical fact, and contrast them to those passages which seem contextually or historically improbable. Biblical scholars have many tools at their disposal to analyze the NT texts and to arrive at working hypotheses and conclusions. What is required to use these tools is an open mind and attention to detail; preconceived conclusions will only get in the way. If Jesus is portrayed differently in a passage from that of known context or history, then that passage must be treated with greater suspicion. For example, some passages portray Jesus in ideological conflict with Pharisaic bystanders. (Mt. 23:23-25) But many of Jesus’ own actions and teachings are uniquely Pharisaic in origin (e.g., “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27; cf. Mt. 6:15; 7:12; Jn. 7:22) Many scholars believe that Jesus was a Pharisee himself.[3] Therefore those passages which attempt to portray Pharisees fervently disagreeing with Jesus are suspicious due to this problem of context and must be analyzed further. The answer to this problem of context may be a simple one. Perhaps the writer couldn’t remember who it was that argued with Jesus and so inserted the Pharisees into that portion of the text out of convenience. Or the answer may be more involved in that the entire event never really occurred at all. It is in this gray area that biblical scholars must operate. Never is there a time when a scholar decides to “throw out” the entire NT because of contextual problems. Also, there is never a time when a scholar takes the entire NT prima facie.

It is incorrect to argue that the entire NT is “divinely-inspired” or historically valid in every detail. Yet it is just this position that Miller seems to infer. In his zeal to refute the bias fallacy, Miller seems to have compounded the problem further by arguing just as radically that the NT is completely reliable and unbiased in its entirety. As I have just pointed out, when the NT is seen in the proper context this pendulum swing is unwarranted and just as awkward as the radical skeptic’s bias charge. In his essay Christian ‘bias’ in the NT Writers-Does it render the NT unreliable or inadmissible as evidence? Miller asserts that the NT is “realistic,” and “authentic.” The main point of his work seems to be that “the modern view of the NT is that of high reliability in its portrayal of the life and times of Jesus Christ.” A discussion of realism and a “look and feel” of authenticity is of little value. A cubic zirconium is realistic and looks like a real diamond, but this impression does not necessarily mean that it is authentic. Likewise, Homer’s The Odyssey convinces us that the Argo could have realistically been sea-worthy and a fine ship, but that does not mean there was a real Argo or a Jason who sailed her. I don’t wish to confuse genre or argue semantics, but only to point out that a discussion of what looks and feels authentic is of little value once we roll up our sleeves and begin to analyze the texts in earnest.

When we do critique the NT texts further we find that there were many “layers” of tradition and story piled atop the historical Jesus. This dynamic process obscures the historical Jesus from the later Christology that Miller advocates. Today we disagree as to who this obscured historical Jesus really was, but we do agree that the post-Easter Christ which is taught today is far different from the real wandering rabbi and Jewish peasant of first-century Palestine. That this accretion took place is the subject of this work. I shall attempt to show that both the NT texts and the resultant portrayal of Jesus have changed radically since the early first century when Jesus lived.

The Arguments for Reliability

Miller makes five arguments for the integrity and veracity of the NT in general and the four canonical gospels in particular:

  1. The apostles are never legendized and are portrayed as normal, human beings complete with the foibles that such humanity entails. The apostles stood the most to gain from exaggerating their own exploits, but since they did not aggrandize themselves this argues against bias on their part. The texts themselves look and feel like narrative history, not a work of fiction.
  2. The early Church acted consistently in an anti-bias fashion, purging heretical texts from its own canon. This preserved the integrity of the texts as we have them today because they “knew the difference” between “reliable and unreliable reports” and “opted for [the] truth.”
  3. The miracles that Jesus performed were unique in their telling and were not told with a flair that would indicate exaggeration or fabrication.
  4. Each gospel was written without the influence of the other writers in different parts of the known world. As such, they constitute “five to eight independent witnesses” to the miracle accounts which indicates that the miracles ring true. Although the gospels share “some data” they have a very different “development path” using different literary styles and oral traditions as their foundation. Since each gospel seems to derive from a different source (the Synoptic problem) and yet tell the same story, we have excellent evidence for an unbiased and historically truthful account of Jesus’ ministry.
  5. Even where the gospels do share a like source, e.g., Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke, “there is no tendency to embellish the narratives. The writers seem to function as responsible scribes, in an area in which it would be easy/natural to embellish or fabricate.” Given that there were many places where the authors could have placed “innocent” statements to embellish Jesus and they did not, we can rely on the gospel narratives as historically valid accounts.

Miller also argues that the time period was too short between Jesus’ own ministry and the appearance of these documents to indicate wholesale fabrication in the manner so typical of the Hellenistic “divine man” gods of the period. Because the Jesus movement arose so quickly, there must have been a real, historical Jesus that catalyzed it early on. The fabricated gods of the pagan world took centuries to fully develop into their final characterization.

Since we see a good number of seemingly contradictory statements, where different authors seem to disagree with each other on minor points, this further argues for veracity over legend because if the authors were creating a legend, they would have smoothed over all of these contradictions. Just because we find a few problems with the texts, that is no reason to throw out the entire NT as too problematical to accept.

Rebuttal and Response to NT Reliability

The NT Texts

Miller’s argument rests on two assumed premises: the apostles were themselves the gospel authors, and that their original writings are more or less exactly as we have them today. As we shall see, both of these premises are naive, unfounded, and haven’t been taken seriously by biblical scholars for decades. To expose these two fallacies, we must look closer at the origins of early Christianity as well as the evolution and historicity of the NT manuscripts.

The manuscripts of the NT were written in Greek. It is argued that there may have existed an Aramaic source for the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark’s gospel, but the evidence is still inconclusive. The earliest incomplete texts of the NT–the Beatty papyri and the Bodmer papyri–date from the third century CE. Unfortunately these exist only as tiny fragments of various texts. Papyrus was in use prior to the fourth century and was a very perishable substance. Beginning in the fourth century, the more durable vellum, made from the scraped skin of goats and sheep, quickly replaced papyri as the preferred writing medium. The first complete manuscripts we have–the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus–date to the fourth century. These complete codices are also in Greek and their dates of composition have been well-established among biblical scholars and linguists. We have no original autographs, extant fragments or manuscripts which date to the first or second centuries and to the time of Christ. With respect to everything that we know about Jesus, these manuscripts are our only authority and despite the 300-year gap between these two extant codices and Jesus, they will have to suffice.

Before there existed any writings of Jesus on papyri, stories about Jesus were spoken orally between people and communities. If the earliest manuscripts began appearing around 50 CE as many scholars conclude, then the oral tradition, as it is known, preserved the deeds and activities of Jesus for around 13 years prior to their eventual codification. These “proto-gospels” were copied and reproduced well before the invention of the printing press and so they had to be copied by a scribe, line for line and word for word in a very time consuming and expensive process. In the centuries after Jesus’ death, most people could not afford to own a copy of a gospel themselves and those Christian communities that could afford a copy used only a single gospel that they read aloud to each other on the Sabbath. Since most communities did not own a copy of a gospel, they preserved the teachings and sayings of Jesus by retelling these stories to each other. Most of these communities preferred to use only their own gospel tradition and so a proliferation of gospel traditions arose.

It is important to realize that not everything which was preserved in the oral tradition automatically made its way into the written texts. By the end of the second century, early church fathers like Serapion and Irenaeus argued for the acceptance of only four gospels. Irenaeus was especially passionate for acceptance of only the four, but many other bishops and leaders disagreed. It was not at all clear in the second century which of the various forms of Christianity then in existence–Marcionian Paulinism, Montanism, Gnosticism, Soteriology, or Catholocism–could claim a superior criteria of legitimacy. Many early Church Fathers who led these Jesus movements fought bitterly amongst themselves and each declared the others heretical. Also, each leader preferred his own oral and textual traditions. Papias seems to have been familiar with at least Mark, Matthew and John, but preferred the authority of the continuous and dynamic oral tradition that still circulated instead. Justin Martyr quotes frequently from the early gospels, but also from the oral tradition as well.[4] Marcion, a colorful church leader preferred his own edited version of Luke where he pulled out all references to the Jews and rejected all other gospels. (Marcion seems to have been aware of the charges of pagan critics like Celsus that the gospels were self-contradictory and so this may have influenced his drastic measure of relying only on Luke.) In one interesting case, a very popular writer named Tatian composed a gospel “harmony” that smoothed out the discrepancies that appeared in the gospels. The Syrian community used Tatian’s harmony as their sole gospel until the fifth century. In the end however, Irenaeus’ views won. In a now famous passage, Irenaeus declares the reason for choosing no more or fewer than the four gospels:

It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we live, and there are four principal winds. (adv. Haer. 3.11.8)

By the end of the second century, the canon had taken shape and from then on the oral tradition slowly died out to be replaced by the authority of the written word.

Christian Trajectories

Almost from the beginning this “Jesus movement” was split among many different communities who each had their own ideas about who Jesus was and what his teachings meant to them. Over time a kerygma emerged, a message “which is proclaimed” (the literal translation of kerygma from the Greek). But it wasn’t always clear what this proclamation was in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death since each community enjoyed the freedom to interpret their stories about Jesus for themselves. Bauer [1934] first realized that this diversity existed throughout the early communities and regions of the Jesus movement.[5] Koester developed Bauer’s work three decades later, calling this diversity Gnomai Diaphoroi. Today, scholars refer to the diversity of those early Jesus movements simply as “Christian trajectories.”[6] Fredriksen [1988] describes these communities and how their diversity played an important role in formulating the kerygma:

“[Early Christians] grouped together, preserving some of Jesus’ teachings and some stories about him, which became part of the substance of their preaching as they continued his mission to prepare Israel for the coming of the Kingdom of God. At the same time or very shortly thereafter, these oral teachings began to circulate in Greek as well as in Jesus’ native Aramaic. Eventually, some of Jesus’ sayings, now in Greek, were collected and written down in a document, now lost, which scholars designate Q (from the German Quelle, “source”). Meanwhile, other oral traditions–miracle stories, parables, legends, and so on–grew, circulated, and were collected in different forms by various Christian communities. In the period around the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) an anonymous Gentile Christian wrote some of these down. This person was not an author–he did not compose de novo. Nor was he a historian–he did not deal directly and critically with his evidence. The writer was an evangelist, a sort of creative editor. He organized these stories into a sequence and shaped his inherited material into something resembling a historical narrative. The result was the Gospel of Mark.”[7]

This gospel, written around 70 CE, was the Original Mark. Original Mark was much shorter than Canonical Mark, the Mark which is in the Bible today. It did not contain Canonical Mark’s 6:45-8:26 verses or the resurrection appendix of 16:9-20. Those passages were interpolated (or inserted) after 70 CE, but sometime prior to canonization in the fourth century. What may have happened was that a dominant community took the gospel and incorporated their own oral traditions into it, with the result being passages 6:45 through 8:26. This provided them with a complete codified form of their own values along with the authority of the written gospel, all in one book. In the earliest versions of Mark and Q, Jesus’ resurrection account was not yet included. At some point in the second century however verses 16:9-20, the resurrection account, was included in order to harmonize it with the other gospels. This editorializing was common and acceptable practice in the ancient world.[8] There existed many different varieties of proto-gospels, each based on the local communities own oral tradition as it was preserved from the time of Jesus. Although Q is the most famous of these early Sayings Sources (as Q is also called) it was not the only one. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is based on a more primitive strata of Q; a strata that swapped stories about Jesus before the apocalyptic expectations that came to be attributed to Jesus and the “Son of Man” sayings found their way into the Q. In other words the Jesus sayings–from oral tradition to the final canonized form that we have today–constantly evolved in a dynamic process which reflected the zeal and enthusiasm of the early Christians who preserved them. Robertson remarks on the reasons why it is difficult to separate the various Jesus traditions from each other:

“Within a hundred years from the date commonly assigned to the Crucifixion, there are Gentile traces of a Jesuist or Christist movement deriving from Jewry, and possessing a gospel or memoir as well as some of the Pauline and other epistles, both spurious and genuine; but the gospel then current seems to have contained some matter not preserved in the canonical four, and have lacked much that those contain.”[9]

Miller asserts that the “picture that emerges [from modern scholarship] is one of increasing authentication of the [NT] by a wide range of scholars.” Which picture emerges? Do we stop at a certain point along the evolutionary path of these traditions and say that “here” is where they become authentic? Should we prefer instead to say that the furthest point in time away from the historical Jesus is the more desirable picture? Perhaps we desire after all to obtain the portrayal of Jesus at the source rather than risk these interpolations? If Miller’s picture is to be considered at all, we must first reconcile what we know about the dynamic evolution of the NT texts and determine where we draw the line on authoritativeness in time. I suspect that Miller would rather we ignore the evolutionary process of the texts and accept the canonical texts as if they were protected in a vacuum from the time of Christ.

It seems that Miller prefers this vacuum to an otherwise rational exegesis. He argues that the “writings never seem to legendize the apostles” even though “they, under a ‘bias’ model, stood the most to gain if they hid the nasty truth about their own lives!” Miller may be the only exegete left who still advocates the old obsolete proof-text method of biblical interpretation because virtually no one still supports the disciple-authorship hypothesis. That the disciples’ names are attached to two of the four gospels in no way indicates that they were the actual authors. The headings which read “The Gospel according to . . .” were second-century additions called pseudepigraphia–authorship by an anonymous person which is then attributed to a famous biblical character for authority. Pseudepigraphical works flourished in ancient Palestine from two centuries before Jesus to around 300 CE after. The unknown Jewish and early Christian authors of pseudepigraphical works felt that, while they themselves had something important to say, their material might not be taken seriously unless it seemed to come from the pen of a famous person such as a disciple or a prophet. All four of the gospels are pseudepigraphical works and today we use the names “Matthew” or “John” merely as convenient labels for the work. It is particularly disturbing to see Miller advocating disciple-authorship of John’s and Matthew’s gospels because this kind of propaganda clouds the real truth and damages the reputation of Christian apologetics.

Sellew [1991] reviews the modern perspective on the evolution of the Jesus teachings which formed the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.[10] Let’s look closely at the earliest gospel upon which Matthew and Luke were based, the Gospel of Mark. In Sellew’s chronological chart below I have made some insertions in order to clarify what pre-Markan traditions existed and influenced Original Mark:

Chronological evolution of the Gospel of Mark

As we see from Mark’s history, it is not so simple a matter as claiming that Canonical Mark in the fourth century contains an “underlying eyewitness account” of the events that occurred in first century Judea. The author of Original Mark had never even met Jesus and probably wrote in Rome.[11] Two chapters were interpolated in Augmented Mark (6:45-8:26) as well as the entire resurrection account of Jesus (16:9-20). Two strata of the manuscript later and we end up with the gospel that we know today. Matthew and Luke are almost entirely based upon pre-canonical versions of Mark and the late stage of Q. These gospels could and did change over time. Sometimes the changes were subtle, other times sweeping and even of a different genre as Kee states:

“Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) relying on the testimony of Papias refers to the gospel of Mark as the “memoir” of Peter. . . . [I]t must be acknowledged that the gospels [as we have them today] do not match the description that Justin Martyr offered for them in the middle of the second century A.D. The gospel of Mark is not a “memoir” of Peter, either in the sense that it recounts in a special way the associations of Peter with Jesus or in the sense that Mark reports first-hand recollections about Jesus. The material on which Mark drew passed through a long process of retelling and modification and interpretation, and it reflects less special interest in Peter than does Matthew’s gospel.”[12]

Miller seems to quickly gloss over the heavy dependence that Matthew and Luke have on Mark and Q. He claims that “most of the NT documents were written with minimal influence between each other . . . they share some data, but show a very independent development path.” He does pay some tribute to the Synoptic problem–as the Luke/Matthew dependence on Q and Mark is called–but only in passing as if to hastily wave it aside. However, the Q material is present in nearly 200 verses in both Matthew and Luke. Also, out of Mark’s 661 total verses all except thirty-one are paralleled or repeated in Luke and Matthew. Miller’s assertion that the Synoptics exert “minimal influence on each other” can hardly be supported. Considering that Luke and Matthew were written anonymously much later than Jesus and by Gentiles who did not know Jesus personally, it can hardly be attested that they “constitute 5-8 independent witnesses to the base set of miracles.” Merely retelling an older tale does not constitute being a witness to anything first hand.

Perhaps compounding the problem of which portions of the NT texts are authentic to the time of Jesus is the grim fact that the texts changed so much over the centuries. As I stated earlier, scribes had to copy the texts from one scroll to another and text critics have found numerous errors, both intentional and unintentional, that have crept into each subsequent copy. The conservative scholars Westcott and Hort have listed over 250 suspected or rejected readings in the canonical gospels and Acts.[13] Enslin still speaks authoritatively to this point:

“[B]efore an ancient writing can speak for itself, can tell of its author’s outlook on life, and the situation that confronted him, we must have that writing in the form in which it was originally written. . . . during the centuries that elapsed between the time of composition and the appearance of our earliest manuscripts the writings had been frequently copied. As a result numerous changes had been made, both intentional and accidental. But not alone minute changes such as alteration in spelling or word order, but more drastic alterations occur. . . . Hence the question of integrity is of great importance. By this is meant simply: Is the book as we possess it exactly the same as it was when it left the author’s hand?”[14]

If we are to explore the veracity of the texts in the manner in which they are currently interpreted by Christianity, then we must try to discover what the original author wanted to say. Even though the gospels–which purport to speak authoritatively on Jesus–are not first-hand accounts of his deeds and activities, they were based in part on earlier traditions that were closer to the historical Jesus. Our job should not be to ignore the problems of the texts as Miller seems to do, but to separate the later interpolations from the earlier Jesus traditions in order to study them more easily. Even this detailed analysis is no guarantee of authenticity of the gospels themselves for as Enslin admits the “scanty” use of the gospels “by the Christians even a hundred years after Jesus’ death” is “amazing,” and “would appear to justify the view that when these gospels appeared they were by no means accorded universal acclaim.”[15]

Especially compounding the problem of individual gospel integrity was the formulation of the canon in the second century. Once the emerging four gospels began to be considered as a cohesive unit and were circulated together, scribes who became used to seeing them together passively harmonized them when discrepancies were found.

I have carefully mapped out the evolution of Mark, the earliest of the Synoptic gospels. This evolution was born with a real, historical Jesus, the man who gave them life to begin with. After Jesus’ death, the stories and tales about him spread rapidly from community to community. Eventually some of these stories were written down or “codified” on scrolls of papyrus in a long lost work we now call Q. A few decades later our first gospel appears with a little more material added in order to fill in the gaps about Jesus that the oral tradition did not contain. Throughout all of this process one pattern is clear: with each new strata a little bit more material was added in an “upside down pyramid” fashion. The earliest version of the Q lacked the “Son of man” and “kingdom of God” material that became a part of the later Q. In turn, the later Q, lacked the resurrection accounts of Jesus that became a part of Augmented Mark. Augmented Mark lacks still more material that shows up in Matthew and Luke and so on. There is a tendency among conservative scholars today to gloss over this very real evolution of the texts and to pretend that the developed canon differs little, if at all, from the early stages of the Jesus movement. This tendency is extremely short-sighted and leads only to confusion. The question we should ask ourselves is “How authoritative are those extra passages in later gospels?” Do we want to strive to get closer to the core of Q where the historical Jesus resides? Or do we instead prefer the post-Easter interpretations of later writers who developed a Christology on top of the historical Jesus and Q source?

The Miracle Accounts

For some reason Miller places an extraordinary emphasis on Jesus’ miracle accounts as evidence for the NT texts authenticity. He claims variously that “the very manner in which the miracles are recounted provide an argument for their authenticity” and that the earliest extrabiblical sources “never dispute the fact of his miracles.”

It seems that Miller is arguing that because Jesus’ miracles claims are modest in number as well as execution and that they exist in the core sayings of Q, they render everything that Jesus was later said to have done with carte blanche validity as well. It is true that Mark’s gospel, even from the early stages, places an emphasis on Jesus’ miracles. But this does not render all of the material that made its way into the canon during the next three centuries that purports to tell us something about Jesus as equally valid.

There exists two modern-day misconceptions concerning the miracle accounts of ancient writers. The first misconception is prevalent in secular society and assumes that since we know today that miracles are impossible, then the ancients must have “made it up.” The second is that Jesus’ miracles indicate that he was a divine god and therefore we should take the NT and his teachings as more authoritative than other writings. Both misconceptions aggravate each other and each commit the fallacy of hindsight–the luxury to look back and impose on past societies, the knowledge that we take for granted now. These misconceptions fail to consider the cultural context of that period of time in history. If we entertain these misconceptions we risk losing sight of what the ancients really thought about their world and the place of miracles in it.

Just as the ancients were not aware that the earth was spherical, they were also not aware that miracles “aren’t possible.” For the Hellenistic world as well as the Jewish one, miracles were not only possible, they were quite normal and expected from prophets and holy men. It was believed that various gods routinely intervened into the affairs of humankind for the purposes of changing history or to reveal their wishes. Mental illness wasn’t understood as we know it now. A person who suffered from what we would now call epilepsy, was thought by the ancients to be demonically possessed. Josephus tells us quite unequivocally that Jews inherited the “Wisdom of Solomon” and therefore were especially adept at miracle-working and cures. Contrary to Miller’s claim that the Jews who performed miracles were “lesser known parallels” of Jesus restricted to “rain-making,” Jewish miracle-working was world-renowned. Josephus tells the story of how King Solomon himself told how to perform healings. Josephus describes Eleazar, an exorcist and one of those descendants of Solomon’s techniques:

“[I] have seen a certain man of my own country whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian . . . He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more . . . when Eleazar would pursuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby let the spectators know that [the demon] had left the man.” (Antiquities 8.2.5)

It does not contextually follow that just because Jesus performed miracles, he was considered divine and indeed we do not find this to be the case among the earliest of Christians. Miller’s assertion that “Jesus’ wide variety of miracles” were performed “on his own authority, without including rain-making” is just not true. Miller’s rain-making strawman holds up poorly to the thunderstorm of Jewish miracle-workers, healers, and magicians that roamed ancient Palestine. Only the Egyptians were regarded higher than the Jews for their miracle and healing abilities. Jesus’ own miracles were well within the context of the period. Any wandering rabbi who was worth his salt would of had a full repertoire of miracles to work and perform among the villagers that he encountered. This is the proper context to view Jesus’ miracles in not, as Miller infers, as some sort of prerequisite for divinity. As Sanders [1993] points out:

“It is difficult to discuss Jesus’ miracles historically, however, because convictions about what Christians believe or should believe interfere very strongly. . . . Jesus’ miracles are to be studied in the light of other miracles of his day, not in the context of the subsequent Christian doctrine that he was both human and divine. . . . The early Christians thought that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and a miracle-worker. This had led many modern Christians to think that first-century Jews looked for a Messiah who performed miracles, and that Jesus’ contemporaries would conclude that a miracle-worker was the Messiah. This view is incorrect.”[16]

For many modern Christians like Miller, Jesus’ miracles are no longer seen in the historical context in which they occurred. Miller has fallen into the very position that he battles against by embellishing the import of these miracle accounts and suggesting that they alone represent historical validity for all NT texts. There is no argument that from the earliest strata Jesus is credited with performing many miracles. The argument is that these demonstrations by Jesus somehow lend authenticity to the NT. When we consider the account of Eleazar’s exorcism in Antiquities, we do not consider Josephus’ work to be either fraudulent or divinely-inspired. Josephus is merely a product of the context of his time; a time when many people believed that miracles, exorcisms, and healings occurred with regularity. We must also look at the NT in this same fashion rather than assign either more or less importance to Jesus’ miracle accounts than they were meant to be taken when written.

If the argument is to take on a characteristic that says that Jesus’ miracle-accounts indicate that he was the Messiah or a god, then we must immediately object to this as well. The questions of Jesus’ divinity did not even arise until the second century.[17] Historically, we have already seen how miracle-workers were not divine, but ordinary human beings. There was no expectation among the Jews for a Messiah who would perform miracles. The Messiah’s role was be largely political since he was expected to restore the kingdoms of Israel by military force. Jesus’ own miracles were not seen by his contemporaries as evidence for divinity or the Messiah; miracles were seen within the context of their day as indicative of a well-learned rabbi or in Jesus’ case, a skilled magician.[18]


Discussions of the historical origins of early Christianity have filled whole books. This is not meant to substitute for the exhaustive research of others like Enslin, Fredriksen, Pagels, Koester, or the earlier German school to which I owe much here. This paper is meant only to rebut the overly simplistic argument that Miller advances in which he argues in support of a “NT in a vacuum” approach to the canonical texts of the NT. Hopefully I have made it clear that modern biblical scholarship has moved away from that obsolete proof-text method of interpretation and instead realizes that the NT evolved in a dynamic process throughout the many centuries leading up to their final canonization. It would not speak well of Christianity if its texts did not change during those formative years prior to canonization; only dogmas and ideologies are cut into stone. Dynamic, passionate movements require constant reflection and interpretation if they are to flower and grow.

Although we are not likely to ever get a clear picture of who the real historical Jesus really was due to the layers of material that were later added, we can come pretty close. Kee outlines one possible picture of Jesus through purely form-critical means of inquiry. Although not authoritative by any means, it does represent most of the common elements that modern scholarship has come to accept in discovering who the historical Jesus really was:

“Jesus appeared on the Palestinian scene as an itinerant teacher, probably self-taught, so there was deep resentment of his authoritative manner among the official religious leadership of Palestine. He held his central mission to be the announcement of the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom, and he regarded his extraordinary powers of healing and exorcism as evidence that the powers of the Kingdom were already breaking into the present situation. . . . [I]t was through the false charge that he was a revolutionary that he was put to death by the Romans–a charge brought by the religious leaders whose authority his pronouncements seemed to threaten.”[19]

After that time the post-Easter Christian community slowly arrived at an interpretation of what their Messiah’s death meant to them. This took on various forms that are beyond the scope of this essay, but in 451 CE the Chalcedonian Definition finally transformed Jesus into the divine god that most Christians are familiar with today. Despite these subsequent layers of interpolation, the upstart Jewish rabbi who changed the ancient world can still be extracted from those texts and appreciated within the proper context of history.


  1. An example of narrative that seems to conflict with history and context is the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Pilate is introduced as a confused, yet sympathetic peace-maker in the focal crowd-scene prior to the demand for the release of Jesus Barabbas. (Mk. 15; Lk. 23; Jn. 18) The narrative seems entirely made up for several reasons: “Barabbas” is Aramaic for “Son of God,” a title thought to be Jesus Christ’s. Also, there was never a custom of releasing prisoners on Passover or any Jewish holiday. Pilate’s persona seems absurdly out of place from the bloodthirsty monster that Philo wrote emperor Augustus about. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment reserved for sedition but Jesus seems to have been accused of blasphemy in the Synoptics (a purely Jewish religious offense). There are reasonable explanations for this narrative appearing as it does, primarily that many early Christians were afraid to portray Rome as an antagonist to their movement for fear of persecution. By shifting the blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews (an already defeated people from the Jewish Revolt of 70 CE) Christian apologists could convince their pagan neighbors that they held no grudge against them. This narrative however began a long tradition of anti-Semitism that flourishes in the Gospel of John. As the church gains secular power after Constantine’s conversion (312 CE) Augustine writes that Jews are allowed to live in the Empire, but only in ghettos and with reduced rights as citizens. (City of God 18.46) After Jesus was declared God by the Chalcedonian Definition (451 CE) Jews were accused of deicide (God-killers) and persecuted until many resettled in Spain and Moorish lands in North Africa. Go Back
  2. Josh McDowell, Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity, (Here’s Life, 1976), p. 31. Go Back
  3. Hyam Maccoby in his Revolution in Judaea, (New York: Taplinger, 1973) analyzes the close links between the Pharisee parable tradition and the early Jesus movement. In particular he studies four Jesus-parables that were Pharisaic in origin. (Mk. 2:27; Mt. 6:15; 7:12; Jn. 7:22) He argues that it is probable that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.Go Back
  4. Justin obtained some stories which are no longer a part of the canon or any known oral tradition. He relates that Jesus was born in a cave and that a fire erupted in the river Jordan upon Jesus’ baptism. (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 78 and 88). Curiously, the pagan god Mithras was also said to have been born in a cave while shepherds kept watch. Go Back
  5. W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. G. Strecker, R. A. Kraft, and G. Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971; German original, Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1934; 2nd ed., 1934). Go Back
  6. Ron Cameron, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins, in The Future of Early Christianity, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) p. 381-392. Go Back
  7. Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1988) p. 3-4. Go Back
  8. It is sometimes difficult for us moderns to remember that attention to fact and accuracy is a relatively recent phenomenon of the post-Enlightenment period. To the ancients, poetic license was not just an aesthetic, it was the commonly accepted practice of the day. Go Back
  9. John M. Robertson, Short History of Christianity, quoted in Herbert Cutner, Jesus: God, Man or Myth? (New York: Truth Seeker, 1950) p. 230. Go Back
  10. Philip Sellew, Secret Mark and the History of Canonical Mark, in The Future of Early Christianity, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) p. 242-247. Regarding Koester’s order of Secret and Canonical Mark, see Helmut Koester, History and Development of Mark’s Gospel (From Mark to Secret Mark and Canonical Mark), in Colloquy on New Testament Studies: A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches, ed. B. C. Corley (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983) p. 35-37; reprinted in Koester, Gospel Traditions in Early Christian Literature: Collected Essays, ed. P. Sellew (London/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992). For more developed modern theories on all four gospel trajectories including Mark’s interpolated chapters 8-10 see Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) p. 273-303, esp. 293ff. Go Back
  11. Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 493. Go Back
  12. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1970) p. 120. Go Back
  13. The New Testament in the Original Greek, eds. Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1953) 38th edition, pp. 584-600. Westcott’s and Hort’s textual discrepancies are listed as “probably containing some primitive error, an error affecting the texts of all, or virtually all, existing documents, and thus incapable of being rectified without the aid of conjecture.” Their list of errors should not be confused with those errors arising due to problems of context or history. Go Back
  14. Morton Scott Enslin, Christian Beginnings, (New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1938), p. 208. Go Back
  15. Ibid, p. 458. Go Back
  16. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993) p. 132-135. Go Back
  17. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (New York: Knopf, 1994) p. 98-110; 220-223. Armstrong is an excellent introduction to the theological philosophies of early Christianity although she is not without her mistakes in Judaic studies. See review by Richard Elliott Friedman, Bible Books in Bible Review (BAS: Volume 10, Number 6, December 1994) p. 16-17. Go Back
  18. Interestingly early Christians pictured Jesus as a magician. In cave motifs depicting the raising up of Lazarus, Jesus always holds a magic wand and is motioning with it when calling Lazarus out from the burial cave. See “The Raising of Lazarus,” in Bible Review (BAS: Volume 11, Number 2, April 1995) p. 20-28; 45. Go Back
  19. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1970) p. 268-269. Go Back
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