Written by: Rev. Nathan Hill
Confidence in the accuracy of the Scriptures has taken a roller coaster ride over the past decades, both within and outside of Christian circles. What can be even more confusing is that people have not simply regarded the message of the Bible as irrelevant for their own lives—they have attempted to discount the truth of the Scriptures and demonstrate that they are a radical hoax by the church…if you can imagine that.
Central to the attack on authenticity has been the four canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The word canonical means the list of sacred books officially accepted as genuine. In the first several centuries of the church there were many historical documents written about Jesus Christ and the things of the early church. However, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early church leaders established and closed the ‘canon’—those books that were inspired by the Holy Spirit and that God used to teach and inspire his people. Thus, we have the Bible in its current form.
Why would people want to attack the authenticity of the gospels you might ask? Certainly this must be the work of secularists attempting to discount Christian faith? Well…sometimes Christians have given a helping hand to the skeptics.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan has spent much of his career attempting to show that the canonical gospels are not the most accurate. Rather, Crossan alleges other writings from that time period give a better perspective on the nature of Jesus Christ and the early church. Namely, Crossan asserts that the virgin birth is a hoax, and that Jesus was a powerful magician but not necessarily a miracle worker. The saga continues with Professor of Ancient History Morton Smith, from Columbia University, allegedly locating a secret addendum to the gospel of Mark that was hidden in a monastery in the West Bank. While its authenticity is hotly contested with many evangelical scholars deeming this a forgery, this document alleges that one night Jesus was placed in a compromising situation with a young man whom which Jesus teaches the mystery of the Kingdom of God. The insinuation here is not lost on the reader. There has also been much discussion about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, a document that portrays Judas as the hero of the Easter story, fulfilling Jesus’ request to betray him.
Perhaps the most popular attempt to discredit the canonical gospels has been the DaVinci Code. Among things, the DaVinci Code alleges that Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper does not depict the disciple John seated next to Jesus. Rather, the feminine qualities of this individual are meant to subtly indicate that this was Mary Magdalene, the one whom Jesus loved and had a relationship with.
I am sure that by now your head is spinning in the midst of all of this. Let me provide you with some tools that you can use to mine your way through this. First, we must address the authenticity of some of these documents. The Gospel of Judas and other non-canonical documents (i.e., the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and others) are genuine historical documents that date back to the first several centuries of the church. On this we can agree—however, our agreement dissipates afterwards. The notion that these documents contain a more accurate portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ is perhaps a stretch. Aside from a few scholars, most affirm that these non-canonical gospels were written many decades and even centuries after the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Why, then, would they contain better knowledge than the documents written at the moment that the action was taking place? Some scholars have tried to date the non-canonicals in the same time period as the canonicals to avoid this difficulty, but this has not achieved universal acceptance. Personally, I call these documents early tabloids—fanciful stories that appear truthful but are based on extravagant myths that exploit a gullible readership.
Moreover, read Luke 1:1–4. This reads like someone who was concerned with details and concerned with documenting the truth. This does not sound like someone participating in a cover up of what really happened. Also, the canonical gospels present material that is difficult to understand—why did Jesus, the sinless Son of God, have to get baptized? If the early writers were trying to sanitize history, they surely would have dealt with this difficult idea. Perhaps, then, they were documenting history as best they could?
Finally, we need to trust the canonization process. We need to trust that church leaders at the time were inspired by the Holy Spirit and formed the canon of Scriptures using the writings that were inspired, spoke to people, and accurately portrayed our faith. It would be foolish to suggest that some two thousand years later we could have better textual insight than those who were alive at the time. Oddly enough, the one thing these scholars have not appealed to is divine revelation from the Holy Spirit that our Scriptures are indeed false.
This just scratches the surface of the discussion that has persisted in this area of New Testament studies. However, be assured today that our Scriptures in hand are the living word of God, and that they hold the power to change a life. After all, they changed yours—and that is something that no fancy literary argument can ever take away.