Faith and History
A Critique of John Warwick Montgomery’s Apologetics
This paper will offer a critical view of John Warwick Montgomery’s approach to Christian apologetics, specifically his attempt to show skeptics that history provides a credible basis for belief in the New Testament Jesus. While Montgomery has not been the only Christian to have a voice in this debate (and, consequently, raise the confidence level of believers around the country), he has been one of the foremost champions of the evidentialist approach to defending the faith.
A more popular example of evidentialism can be found in the writings of Josh McDowell. His Evidence That Demands A Verdict is a bulky anthology, containing quotations by Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, and other writers, to bolster his claims about the Bible, including Old Testament prophecy fulfillment, and Christ’s resurrection. This best-seller in Christian bookstores is endorsed by organizations such as Campus Crusade For Christ, as an evangelistic tool for college students.
Dr. Montgomery has been Professor of Law And Theology at the International School of Law in Washington D.C., and Chairman of the Division of Church History And Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has been a vigorous defender of the Christian faith, contributing numerous articles to evangelical publications, and having several collections of them put in book form.
My intention is not to present a theological treatise. I wish to examine from an historian’s perspective the reasons Montgomery gives for believing that the New Testament is not only a source of religious faith, but literally a set of objective documents, reporting actual events of the past. Examining these reasons is appropriate, since Montgomery himself invites his readers to do so:
We won’t naively assume the ‘inspiration’ or ‘infallibility’ of the New Testament records, and then by circular reasoning attempt to prove what we have previously assumed. We will regard the documents… only as documents, and we will treat them as we would any other historical materials.
Such an undertaking would have to involve historiographical tests of reliability, as Montgomery suggests. Literary criticism is one example. But how far is he willing to travel down the road of inquiry? To put it another way, is his method of looking at Christianity’s sacred scripture a scientific one, as his proposal suggests? (By “scientific” I mean using critical analysis, and going wherever the data leads us, and no further.) Or is it more an attempt to rationalize pre-held assumptions of faith? If the former is true, then scholars should read the Bible more carefully to find out what they have overlooked. If the latter is the case, then there is more than a little irony in the statement I have just quoted.
The Rise of Historical Skepticism
Understanding the shift in modern historical thought concerning Jesus can be helpful by discovering a motivation for Montgomery’s approach to these issues. Christian apologetics, simply defined, is a response to attacks from dissenters. From its beginning, the Church was beset with an assortment of criticisms. But the historical nature of the New Testament’s Jesus was not a major concern until the late 1700s.
With the advent of the Enlightenment, and a new rationalistic emphasis, serious doubt was introduced regarding the Gospels’ authenticity. Hermann Samuel Reimarus’ skeptical observations about the resurrection accounts, followed by David Fredrick Strauss’ rejection of supernatural elements in the life of Jesus, contributed greatly to this critical tendency. Further damage was made when Wilhelm Wrede authored his two-volume work, entitled The Life Of Jesus Critically Examined. Wrede argued persuasively that the Gospel writers were more intent upon conveying theological dogma (more precisely, myth), rather than reporting actual events as they happened.
Two scholars emerged in the 20th century whose writings set the tone for future New Testament studies. Albert Schweitzer, in his book The Quest For The Historical Jesus, asserted that the attempt to “get behind” the picture of Jesus in the Gospels, and discover the man as he really lived, was a difficult, if not impossible, task. Rudolf Bultmann took his criticisms to a new height, as it were. He suggested that looking for an earthly Jesus in history is a futile effort, since the earliest Christian sources pointed more to a Christ above earthly affairs, In short, someone to be found in the realm of myth. Faith thus became irrelevant to history.
The Christians Fight Back
The conservative Christian response to these threatening developments evolved into two basic strategies. Some scholars in the Reformed community (in line with traditional Calvinistic and Lutheran thinking) shaped a strictly presuppositional apologetic. Simply speaking, this has been a counter-attack directed at the perceived inconsistencies of humanistic philosophy, not an effort to directly answer the critics. Laymen might term this strategy changing the subject. But spokesmen for this approach say we should recognize the merit of assumed Biblical concepts. Since everyone comes to the table with their own presuppositions, their own starting point for a worldview, the Christian’s duty is simply to educate nonbelievers about Christ and the beautiful consistency of the Christian life as it affects society. The two most notable names associated with this approach have been Gordon Clark, Professor of Philosophy at Covenant College, and Cornelius Van Til, Professor of Philosophy And Theology at Westminster Seminary.
The reason Reformed writers have such reluctance to confront the critics on their own terms has been their preoccupation with subjectivity. Everyone has a philosophical bias, says a Reformed theologian. To this type of believer, bias is not a problem: objectivity is more or less an illusion, and everyone is entitled to their own peculiar beliefs. Christians just happen to have the correct ones.
This actually is, as one might imagine, not a defense at all. But theology comes in where philosophy leaves off. The idea is that God’s power to enlighten the mind dulled by a sinful nature is what makes the difference in the conversion process, not facts and evidence. The discussion of history, therefore, has not entered in as a component of Reformed apologetics. Proponents have been more concerned with an esoteric philosophy of history which expresses a divine plan.
Presuppositionalism represents one end of the apologetical spectrum, while Montgomery’s position is characteristic of a totally different style of Christian argument. His approach is ostensibly an empirical one: acknowledging the value of faith, while stressing the weight of brute facts. Both the believer and the unbeliever share a common rationality. Montgomery, therefore, highly recommends a continuous dialogue with skeptics, showing them that the way to Christ involves, for instance, a proper understanding of science (as any creationist might do). History, Montgomery’s specialty, deserves to be honestly and thoughtfully studied. The answer, then, to the Bible’s critics, from his point of view, is that they should be better scholars. If they would do so, they would see the truth about Jesus in a better, more reasonable light. The implication here is that faith and serious historical inquiry go hand in hand. This appreciation of how history lends support to the New Testament–or more precisely, that the Gospels ARE history–is a key component in the process of Christian conversion.
Most Christian apologists have used varying combinations of the two approaches. They might employ philosophical argumentation, along with a study of history, to display what they see as a cohesive world-view. E.J. Carnell is one example of employing such a strategy. His work in this area has been expertly analyzed in Gordon R. Lewis’ Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims.
Another, more well-known Christian writer who combined apologetical methods was Francis Schaeffer. He took the Bible to be self-attesting, and expressed this opinion in his earlier works on modern thought. But then, in How Should We Then Live?, his expansive critique of recent western culture, he enlisted the aid of history to prove his thesis, that the “Judeo-Christian ethic” has been the preserving force of society. (This latter opus by Schaeffer, incidentally, is one of the best illustrations of a theologian carefully selecting and omitting historical facts to fit his schema concerning the ills of society.) In his view, Christianity is validated by the way it positively contributes to the culture. After seekers of truth see these blessings, they can then turn to the Bible, specifically the New Testament’s account of Jesus, and discover the source of meaning and stability.
The Jesus of History
A reading of History And Christianity, a summary of his views, can leave the reader with an impression that Montgomery has a faith in history to accompany his faith in Christ. What pervades his writing is a reverent, almost naive trust in the idea that history always gives us truth. This opinion seems to explain his apologetics.
On the other hand, he argues that besides “the events themselves” (his definition of history), the writing about those events can be colored by a singular view of human nature, which is itself part of a larger worldview. To Montgomery, then,
…it is clear that one’s personal value system, which is related to one’s religio-philosophical beliefs, will make all the difference in the world as to what kind of history he will write on the basis of the chronicled events.
This point is made as a recognition of the subjective aspect of historical writing. Apparently, it creates some balance in view of his trust in “events.” However, this emphasis upon bias is exclusively reserved for a discussion of a theological view of history. When addressing nonbelievers, about the historical Jesus, Montgomery speaks the language of objectivity, stressing facts and evidence. There is a question, though, as I try to point out, whether he exercises objectivity in arriving at his own conclusions.
In keeping with his stated aim to discuss the New Testament as a set of historical records, Montgomery begins, he says, by subjecting it to a bibliographical test. Such an analysis of the textual tradition presents an understandable problem: the original documents are nonexistent. Therefore it can be difficult, to say the least, to judge the accuracy of claimed events, not to mention the reliability of various conversations and discourses, contained in copies dated several hundred years after the Gospels were first written.
This would seem to be a formidable argument against trusting the New Testament, according to Montgomery’s line of argument. After all, a biography can be altered through the passage of time. He contends, however, that the problem is not as great as we might imagine. In support of this contention, he quotes at length Sir Fredrick G. Kenyon, who points out the relatively short interval of time between the earliest extant New Testament manuscripts and the originals (250-300 years). He compares that span of time to the case of classical Greek literature (an average of 1300 years). In addition, Montgomery states that the number of copies of early versions, such as the Latin Vulgate, is remarkable. A total of 13,000 portions of the New Testament is preserved today. Besides that fact, quotations from early Church writers confirm sections of the New Testament. Taken together, this data shows, according to Montgomery, that the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels are his.
A second test for the New Testament involves looking at the internal evidence in the documents. This means, he says, that we should take seriously the claims it makes for itself. To be more specific, we should believe the Gospel writers when they assert repeatedly that they are recording these events as eye-witnesses. He illustrates this point by citing Luke 1:1-14, I John 1:1-4, and Paul’s assorted claims to be an apostle chosen by Christ. The test of “internal evidence,” then, is really a test for the New Testament reader, rather than any of the writers. We should simply give them the benefit of the doubt for honesty and integrity. “This means,” says Montgomery, that
…one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.
Not only are the New Testament writers to be trusted, but the support of other historical persons should also be considered in the same light. Montgomery calls this the test of external evidence, and focuses in upon the opinions of Biblical authorship provided by several Church Fathers. He mentions, for example, Papias, bishop of Hieropolis (circa 130 CE), who confirms in Montgomery’s mind the authorship of Mark. This is established by the Mark’s direct association with Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.
Iraneus is also referred to as an important source for confirming Gospels. This early Church Father agrees with Papias, and credits Mark with being Peter’s interpreter. In addition, he sees Luke’s Gospel as essentially Paul’s view of Jesus. According to Montgomery, there is no question in Iraneus’ mind that the book called John was written by a man who had been one of Jesus’ closest friends. Iraneus’ thinking on these subjects is highly regarded by Montgomery. This particular Church Father, so the tradition states, was a pupil of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who in turn, heard accounts about Jesus from John, and other 1st century disciples.
Patristic testimony, Montgomery tells us, can also be seen as a validation of the Bible as a whole. Their references to the Old Testament, as well as the New, provide for it an integrity it would otherwise lack, without such endorsements. One prominent illustration of Montgomery’s esteem of early ecclesiastical opinion is his use of their writings in lending support to the idea that Noah’s ark exists somewhere in Turkey. In fact, in the 1970s Montgomery himself helped lead an expedition to that part of the world in the hopes of finding the ark. He chronicled that search in his book, The Quest For Noah’s Ark. One chapter in the book is devoted to quotes from Faustus of Byzantium, John of Chrysostom, and other assorted Church writers. Their allusions to the supposedly preserved ark, for Montgomery, apparently lend weight to the belief that the ark could still be found. (By all accounts, though, the expedition was unsuccessful.)
Montgomery, in his desire for us to see the New Testament in a fair light, has an opinion about form-criticism that is anything but flattering. He questions the legitimacy of attempts to reconstruct the of those documents according to a multi-authorship scheme. With such a view, “Matthew,” for example, would be understood as the end result of composition and editing by a group of writers. Montgomery finds such theorizing to be nothing more than speculation, based upon a rationalistic bias. Moreover, he says it ignores an important consideration, that not enough time elapsed between the actual events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels for such a group effort to take place.
Montgomery’s belief that the New Testament writers were eye-witnesses to the miraculous events in Jesus’ life is a primary concern for him. Linked with that assessment is his conviction of the authors’ pure motives for writing their accounts. Satisfied that he has presented a convincing set of arguments, he asks an apparently rhetorical question:
What, then, does a historian know about Jesus Christ? He knows, first and foremost, that the New Testament documents can be relied upon to give an accurate portrait of him. And he knows that this portrait cannot be rationalized away by wishful thinking, philosophical presuppositionalism, or literary maneuvering.
The actual portrait of Jesus, as shown in the New Testament, is the next logical topic. Content that he has shown the Gospels to be narratives of “the events themselves,” Montgomery, as apologist, seeks to convince his readers that Jesus is worthy of our serious consideration. This must be the case, he asserts, since Christ claimed to be divine. Belief in this idea is a reasonable imperative, once we arrive at it by a gradual process of elimination: Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or legend, or God.
The first option is ruled out by the high standard of Jesus’ ethics. The virtues which he epitomized, and which have had great benefits to the human race, make it next to impossible to think that he would deceive his own followers. As Montgomery puts it:
Is it possible that such a Jesus would have committed one of the most basic moral errors of all, allowing the end to justify the means, and basing his entire life and ethical teachings upon a colossal lie as to his real nature?
From Montgomery’s perspective, this is both an intriguing and rhetorical question. It is simply not possible for a teacher who valued truth so highly would lie about his divine identity. Montgomery quotes John 8:44 to confirm this opinion.
The second option is handled in a similar way. The utter soundness of Jesus’ teaching makes it inconceivable that his claim to being God was really an expression of a deranged mind. Referencing to modern clinical psychiatry, Montgomery makes the point that if Jesus was schizophrenic–having delusions of divinity, while only being a man–he would retreat to an autistic stage of life. Yet as we look at Jesus’ teaching and example, we can see a person who embodied success, optimum mental health, and contentment. For Montgomery, this leads to an inescapable conclusion:
If the documentary records of Jesus’ life are accurate, Jesus was not a charlatan, then he was either God incarnate, as he claimed or a psychotic. If we cannot take the latter alternative… we must arrive at a Jesus who claimed to be God simply because he was God.
But one more option is open to the skeptic, as Montgomery himself suggests. This choice entails the possibility that Jesus’ followers, intentionally or not, constructed a picture of Jesus in line with the “messianic fever” that pervaded the Jewish mind in the first century. Essentially, they created a glorified portrait which would serve the purposes of a newly formed religion.
Montgomery contends that this interpretation. while plausible on the surface, is erroneous since, first of all, it does not recognize the fact that messianic expectations prior to the time of Jesus were antithetical to the picture of Jesus in the New Testament These ideas of the Jews were militaristic and Jewish, and concerned primarily with the overthrow of political oppression. On the other hand, the Gospels’ Jesus is a spiritual redeemer, whose kingdom encompasses all the nations of the world.
Secondly, Jesus’ disciples were .”..psychologically, ethically and religiously incapable of performing such a deification.” What he means by this statement is that the character of Jesus’ closest followers refutes any notion of collusion, or wild flights of imagination. They were ordinary fishermen, practical tax-gatherers, and unpretentious commoners. They had neither the time, nor the ambition, to make things up as they went along.
Jesus’ resurrection, Montgomery states, is the final and most sublime proof of his deity. In this most interesting set of arguments, he affirms that Jesus return from the dead was not an unexpected event. This is so, because the mobs that attend his trial and were the same people who heard Christ predict his resurrection at other times. In addition, the Jewish leaders were so concerned that the disciples might steal the body to fake a fulfillment of that prediction, that they arranged for Roman guards to be at the tomb. In spite of such precautions, though, Montgomery maintains that:
According to the documents, Jesus did rise, bodily, and was seen again and again over a forty-day period until he publicly ascended into heaven.
He quotes from the books of Luke, John, and II Peter, to show how the Biblical writers understood the difference between myth and fact, and reported their eye-witness accounts. The actuality of the resurrection, he contends, became the greatest instance of how the truth of an event can effect the endurance of a believing people. The only reason that a historian would reject such overpowering evidence, Montgomery believes, would be because the evidence he has just presented did not match up to the inquirer’s presumptions of reality. A naturalistic person, by definition, does not allow for miracles. Therefore, miracles do not exist. Such prejudice is not fair to the documented material. Montgomery’s advice to his skeptical readers, then, is an appeal to put aside their slanted objections, and let the evidence speak for itself. When they accept his offer, they will ultimately make a decision based upon the high probably that the New Testament is historically true, In addition, Christianity will be seen as reasonably correct about the resurrection, and all the other claims about Jesus. Thus a personal commitment to Christ is inevitable.
A Critical Response
Dr. Montgomery has certainly amassed a great number of claims. In fact, his method of proving some of them is often an exercise in presenting more claims, not evidence. This only compounds his predicament; it does not really answer any questions. It also makes his presentation a curious one to which to respond. But I will attempt to do so in a way which is both fair and, hopefully, comprehensive.
Montgomery expresses confidence that skeptics will be convinced by the weight of the evidence, as long as they look at it, and arrive at an objective conclusion. Of course, much of the acceptance of the basic claim–the New Testament is historically true, as a record of “the events themselves”–depends upon what is meant by the term “evidence.” Indeed, if we went no further at this point, and judged the data with the same degree of enthusiasm as Montgomery, we might tend to agree that his assessment is right on the money: the Gospels give us a true account of Jesus’ life just as it really happened. But history, like many academic disciplines, requires more serious analysis. Moreover, if the prospect of eternal destiny hinges upon the acceptance of these claims, then it is worth our time to examine them carefully.
After studying Montgomery’s thesis, it seems to me that his job as a theologian takes precedence over his attempt to size up the New Testament historically. This should not be a shocking revelation. An apologist defined is one who already ascribes to a given theological or philosophical position, and tries to defend, or even rationalize, that position. In Montgomery’s case, he does a fairly good job of offering arguments that look respectable, but in the end they are really problematic. In short, he overstates the case for historicity, and begs further questions as he goes along.
Montgomery’s desire is to have us read the New Testament as though it is a collection of instantaneous bulletins, reporting the news of Jesus as it happened. The Gospels become by this understanding accurate in every detail, and very simple to belive in. “Can we accept,” he asks, “the totality of Scripture in our modern age of doubt? Definitely.” This is certainly a bold claim. But it needs to be substantiated.
I would like to respond to Dr. Montgomery’s line of argumentation by, first. addressing the tests of reliability to which he subjects the New Testament. I agree with the desirability of such tests. At the same time, I have reservations about the form of these tests he gives us for the documents. Examining the textual tradition can be illuminating, by showing us the evolution of a set of beliefs. But Montgomery’s bibliographical test of the New Testament comes short of proving anything.
He tells us that the earliest copies that have been found are closer to the original writings than the copies of classical literature. This is an interesting point, but it has no direct bearing upon the question of whether the authors wrote, or even intended to write, fact or fiction, or a mixture of both. Even conservative Biblical scholars estimate that Paul, and later the Gospel writers, composed their books at least 35-65 years after Jesus was supposed to have existed. That provides a generous period of time for numerous creative efforts on the part of the new Church leaders. Consequently, numerous versions of Jesus showed up after a generation or two. A serious study of the New Testament, the “apocryphal” Gospels, and other extra-biblical writings proves this point.
Montgomery’s test of internal evidence leaves a lot to desired. He wants us to assume with him that the New Testament writers were honest and accurate in their portrayal of Jesus. He is essentially proposing that we place absolute trust in the documents before we have even analyzed them. His recommendation of this attitude is based upon his perception that they claim to be eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life on earth. But this is really reading more into the material than it warrants.
In a careful study of the relevant passages, it becomes difficult to maintain such a position. I John 1:1-4 alludes to a personal acquaintance with the “word of life.” But the wording here refers more to a mystical relationship with Christ, than a flesh-and-blood encounter. The author of Luke (1: 1-4) notes that he wants to give a well-ordered account of Jesus, as passed on to him from others who claimed to be eye-witnesses. At no point, however, does this writer claim such a role for himself. In the case of Matthew, early tradition once attributed the book to one of the apostles of Jesus. But as J. B. Phillips remarks, .”..scholars nowadays almost all reject this view.” As for Mark’s Gospel, everyone has his or her guess as to whom the name of the book refers. At any rate, he, along with the other New Testament writers, make no claim for knowing an earthly Jesus personally.
A further point should be made in reference to the matter of eye-witness claims. Many events are described in the Gospels, which are written in great detail.Yet the likelihood that the writers shared the same events is very slim. Consider, for example, the announcement to Mary by an angel of Jesus’ supernatural conception, Jesus’ birth, a star guiding the Magi to Jesus’ home, Jesus’ solitary temptation, in the desert. and the resurrection morning visits to the tomb of Jesus. Montgomery implies, by his stress on first-hand testimony, that the evangelists were somehow capable of being present every time such amazing phenomena occurred, and recorded these events and conversations with infallible accuracy. A more likely scenario is that these accounts were written after a number of Jesus stories had already become part of the popular culture.
To use the early Church Fathers as objective corroboration is like calling upon Joseph Goebbels to give a neutral opinion about his fuhrer. Or, to be less provocative, expecting James Carville to provide a dispassionate view of Bill Clinton. Montgomery’s use of these ecclesiastics ignores the fact that all of them write from the standpoint of their own presumed convictions about Christ, gained in large measure from the New Testament scriptures. (They are also at least two generations removed from the time he was supposed to have lived.)
Actually, the matter of bias is central to the issue of understanding the Gospels, and all of the Bible, for that matter. If we follow Montgomery’s line of thought, the evangelists were neutral reporters, simply announcing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as they happened, as an anchorman might do on the 6 o’clock news. But as one studies these documents, it becomes obvious that these authors were men of Christian faith, writing to encourage their readers to deeply believe in Christ. In fact, they say so themselves, as John 20: 31 and Romans 1: 1-7 illustrate. To call the New Testament religious propaganda, then, would not be an insult, but a fair assessment of these books.
Montgomery’s opinion about form-criticism, the task of distinguishing between the authentic words of Jesus and the church tradition which later overlaid them, is, in my judgement, a bit harsh. But his view is also understandable, since he equates the two. From his angle, he sees nothing that would vary from the original events. But this outlook seems, to me, to be more of an expression of faith, arising out of a church tradition of infallibility, than a conclusion coming from an empirical study. Essentially, it does not really matter if the authors of the Gospels were single writers or a group of writers. They had a strong faith in Christ to begin with. And that faith necessarily colored all of their writing. Quoting A.J.P. Taylor, historian Michael Grant has pointedly observed, “.’..no man can recall past events without being affected by what has happened in between’ and …there is no reason why the evangelists should be expected to escape this tendency.'”
Another point should be made here that is worth mentioning. Such an intense faith on the part of the New Testament writers brings up an interesting question which should be posed: Which came first? Were the writers persuaded to write about Christ, because of the charismatic life of Jesus, however we wish to characterize him? Or was the man Jesus a product of an assortment of myths, which in time needed flesh and blood, so to speak? The first option has been explored in depth by scholars of various persuasions. The idea is that Jesus at least lived during the period he is said to have lived, and had an impact upon his society. This natural life then took on supernatural dimensions, thanks to the New Testament writers. The second choice should not be discounted, given the sociological milieu at the time the New Testament came into being. Paul, it can be argued. used elements of myths already available to him, to elevate Jesus to the status of Christ. Later, the evangelists supplied him with an earthly identity, and gave us a human life to imitate. This alternative, though perhaps a minority opinion, is also worth considering.
Montgomery presses his case for Jesus’ deity, on the presumption that he has already shown the New Testament to be historically reliable. But, as I have shown, this is not the case. However, since Dr. Montgomery insists that we take this path of inquiry, I will address his arguments in the order he presents them.
Jesus a charlatan? Montgomery rules out this possibility, mainly because Jesus would not violate his own high standard of ethics. There is a lot to unpack here. Despite Montgomery’s confident assurance that deception was not part of Jesus’ mode of behavior, some scholars, such as Morton Smith (in his book Jesus The Magician), have suggested the strong possibility that Jesus–assuming for the moment that there was such a person–might have been a magician, utilizing illusory feats of healing and exorcism common to charismatic figures of his day. Moreover, even if we assume that Jesus had a lofty ethical standard, we know of other ethical teachers who have exhibited weak aspects of their character. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther king, for example, had problems with their marriages.
But the bottom line is that Montgomery excludes the possibility of hypocrisy on Jesus’ part, because he has a faith commitment to the New Testament, not a confidence in true historical inquiry. Another consideration is that The opponents of the early Christians were not as convinced about Jesus’ unimpeachable character as the believers of that time. Thus Montgomery’s effort to convey a worldwide consensus about Jesus is an unfortunate distortion. Yet more importantly, the underlying issue is whether or not the “ethics of Jesus” are actually words that a real person spoke. Montgomery has not established this proposition to any degree.
He then cancels out any thought that Jesus might have been deluded about who he was. The idea that the object of Christian faith was unbalanced in his mind is eliminated by Montgomery, since Jesus’ life and teaching were both reference points for mental stability. Yet, even according to the Gospels, there is a question about that assumption, voiced by neighbors and members of his own family (Matt. 13: 53-58; Mk. 3: 21; Lk. 4: 28-30). In addition, his actions toward the money-changers in the temple, cursing of a fig tree, and his admonition to his followers, to hate their families (Lk. 14: 26) might lead the reader to suspect a psychological problem. Thus it appears that Montgomery’s treatment of the material itself is selective, if not inadequately understood.
Incidentally, the claim itself, of deity, would almost force the conclusion, that the person is not in his or her right mind. Both Hitler and Rev. Jim Jones were obsessed by an elevated idea of who they were. But of course, making such a statement, and even believing it, does not make it true. It simply indicates a delusionary state, not necessarily an autistic one, as Montgomery suggests.
Once again, the central issue is faith in the documents before they have been proven to be reliable. Therefore, any referencing to them to substantiate theological claims is simply an exercise in circular reasoning. I will comment on this point shortly.
Getting back to a more historical topic, Montgomery holds that the “messianic fever” preceding the writings of the Gospels was political and militaristic in nature, rather than spiritual. But such thinking did not really distinguish between the earthly and heavenly aspects of such. Israel’s hopes of liberation incorporated both elements. He also notes that the Christian Church would not have shaped a myth of Jesus, because the earliest disciples were not very creative. This is so, he contends, because their down-to-earth natures would not allow for it. Once again, he concludes this from his reading of the Gospels, which he has not yet shown to be reliable. But even along with his assumption of the disciples’ “blue-collar” background, I would suggest that a worshipful attitude towards someone can allow for all sorts of creative efforts, and in a small span of time. Recent history gives us vivid examples. William Shirer, in his The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich was shocked at how the otherwise intelligent, and cultured, German people could get caught up in an unswerving admiration for Hitler. Another bizarre example of myth-building in recent years is the cultish fanaticism of certain Elvis Presley fans, who claim–in all seriousness –to have been visited by their resurrected hero. One further consideration should be kept in mind: oral tradition during this period was not a static phenomenon, but a very fluid development. This was especially true, given the prevalence of Messiah figures, and numerous, conflicting, stories of Jesus that circulated in the 1st century.
Speaking of resurrections, Montgomery affirms that Jesus’ return from the dead is the greatest proof of his divinity. But even if we study the accounts, as he suggests, we find problems, The Gospels themselves indicate that no one was at the tomb when the supposed event took place. Plus, they contradict each other as to the persons present later that morning, and the sequence of events that day. None of these discrepancies are surprising, if we view them in a critical light, and understand them as part of a fictional composite for a growing community of believers. But Montgomery insists that we take the Gospels at face value; in other words, as factual. This is not possible, since he told us earlier that we can assume fraud or error in the case of contradictions.
This is another instance in which Montgomery has committed the fatal error of reasoning in a circle. His main reference for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection is the New Testament, which he infers is attested to by a risen Christ. And of course, we can learn about the risen Christ by reading the New Testament. On it goes, in a circle.
Montgomery’s faulty reasoning is part of a larger, very common circular defense of Christianity, which can be summed up in this way:
I believe the Bible, because the Bible is the word of God.
How do I know?
Because it says so. (Very few passages actually imply anything to this effect. Nevertheless, we can assume this statement to be true, for the sake of argument.)
But why do I believe what it says?
Because God wouldn’t lie, and it’s his word.
Essentially, we cannot go to a set of documents we are attempting to show is accurate and reliable, and use it to support points about its main character. That is why Montgomery, and other sincere believers, cannot cite Bible passages for the Bible to prove its own historicity. The historical integrity of the New Testament, as with any other historical document, should not be judged according to the number of claims it makes for itself, or internal sequences of events. This can only be done with non-Christian, corroborative support. which in the case of the Gospels, and the book of Acts, for that matter, is lacking.
Specific corroboration about events that are casually described in the Gospels is nonexistent: darkness covering the Middle East while Jesus is hanging on the cross, the bodily resurrection of dead saints that same afternoon, an accompanying earthquake, Lazarus raised from the dead, a Roman census which would cause families to travel to their home town, any details of Jesus’ life and ministry, his conversations with friends and enemies, his casting out demons from people, his ethical teaching, anything at all about John the Baptist, the arrest of Jesus, the apostles existence and their speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost, among numerous other New Testament claims.
There is virtually no historical document–outside of official Church literature hundreds of years after the “facts”–which even mentions some of these extraordinary events. We would expect by this date, that something would turn up, to lend support to the dramatic occurrences described in the New Testament. Objectively speaking, nothing has shown up in respect to the examples that I have given. The description of most of these items is large-scale. Yet no writer had anything to say about them except the evangelists, and the author of the book of Acts.
If we approach the matter of this silence in a naturalistic way (without the assumption of miracles), then none of this is surprising. We can better understand the sheer absence of corroboration, if we see faith in Jesus as a product of the religious and social pressures that were present up to, and including, the 1st century. This was a phenomenon helped along by the New Testament writers, and other influential theologians, as the Church grew. The evangelists, then, wrote a “script” about Jesus, based upon stories and ethical teachings already in existence.
Opting for an acceptance of the New Testament’s claims, as Dr. Montgomery would have us do, puts us in the awkward position of believing in a set of documents with little nonsectarian mention anywhere. The encouragement that he offers us, to be scientific historians, and, at the same time, to embrace the Gospels as factual accounts is unacceptable. In fact, it is a paradoxical recommendation. If we treat the New Testament as we do every other document of the past, we have no choice but to analyze its content, and judge its contents by the preponderance of historical evidence, or the lack of it. Sifting through the material in such a manner enables us to better distinguish between fact and fiction.
Outside of Christian literature, there is not much to make us confident about a historical Jesus. The scarcity of other testimony makes the historian’s task that much more complex and discerning. That is why I would term Montgomery’s approach pseudo-scientific. It appears to be an invitation to historical and scientific inquiry, while it is actually nothing more than a way to defend personal assumptions about the material. The arguments that he puts forth to lend credence to the New Testament, especially the Gospels, do not really help his case. Instead, they only cause greater suspicion about the documents.
We can understand the New Testament as a collection of historical documents, insofar as it reflects the deep faith of early Christians. But going beyond that conclusion is not warranted. The most we can say is that a possibility exists concerning a historical Jesus. However, even that possibility is limited, due to the creative efforts of Paul, the evangelists, and other influential shapers of the Jesus story, who already had an adequate supply of myths to use as a basis for their writings. Nothing definite can be said about the matter. But scholarship has provided natural explanations for the origin and evolution of belief in Jesus. If they suffice as a reasonable reenactment of Christianity’s beginnings, then a supernatural explanation (what is left after rejecting Montgomery’s attempt to present a reasonable case) is unnecessary.
Faith based upon evidence is an oxymoron, especially when the “evidence” turns out to be further assumptions about the documents. Evidentialist apologetics, such as I have dealt with in this paper, should therefore remind us of the need to study and write about the past with care.