Mark D. Roberts

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
I grew up in a solid evangelical church. The Gospels were assumed to be not only historically accurate but also inspired by God. In my teenage years I wondered about the trustworthiness of the Gospels. But my youth leaders reassured me. I was encouraged to learn that the inspiration of the Gospels was proved by the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Who else, besides the Holy Spirit, could inspire the evangelists to compose such amazingly parallel accounts of Jesus?
I went to college at Harvard. Though founded as a Christian school, and though the university seal continues to proclaim veritas christo et ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the Church,” Harvard in the 1970s wasn’t exactly a bastion of Christian faith. Plus, I was planning to major in philosophy, a discipline notorious for its atheistic bias. Many of my friends back home worried that I would lose my faith at “godless Harvard.”
During my freshman year, it wasn’t my philosophy courses that threw my faith for a loop, however. It was a New Testament class. Religion 140, “Introduction to Early Christian Literature,” was taught by Professor George MacRae, a top-notch New Testament scholar. As the semester began, I had my guard up, expecting Professor MacRae to be a Dr. Frankenstein who would create a monster to devour my faith. In fact, however, Professor MacRae was no mad scientist. One of the best lec- turers I ever had at Harvard, he seasoned his reasonable presentations with humorous quips among hundreds of valuable insights. His first lecture on the challenges of studying early Christianity was so impressive to me that I still remember his main points and use them when I teach seminary courses on the New Testament.
Professor MacRae followed this lecture with a fascinating exploration of the world of early Christianity. Next he turned to the letters of Paul. Though he investigated them as a critical scholar, his insights fit more or less with what I had learned in church. My guard began to come down.
But then we came to the Gospels. Professor MacRae did not deny their usefulness as historical sources. But he did argue that these documents, though containing some historical remembrances, were chock-full of legendary elements, including miracle stories, exorcisms, and prophecies. These were not to be taken as part of the historical record, he said. Rather, they were best understood as fictional elements added by the early Christians to increase the attractiveness of Jesus in the Greco-Roman world. The Gospels were not so much historical or biographical documents as they were theological tractates weaving together powerful fictions with a few factual data.
Perhaps what most shook my faith in the trustworthiness of the Gospels was Professor MacRae’s treatment of the similarities among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He explained per- suasively that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark in their writing. In the process, he also demonstrated how Matthew and Luke changed Mark, interjecting “contradictions” into the Gospel record. Listening to this explanation of why the Synoptic Gospels were so similar, I felt the rug being pulled out from under myconfidence in these writings. Where I had once been taught that these similarities were evidence of divine inspiration, I discov- ered that a straightforward historical explanation provided a simpler account of the data. How many other things have I been taught about the Gospels that aren’t true? I wondered.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus