IVP has just published Is the New Testament Reliable: A Look at the Historical Evidence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), by Paul Barnett (an Australian scholar who is currently bishop of North Sydney). The book was first issued in 1986 by Hodder & Staughton as Is the New Testament History? It’s an up-to-date entry in the abiding controversy concerning the historicity of the New Testament, and it’s both readable and persuasive–an effort to evaluate the historical evidence without specifically arguing theories of inspiration or theological issues (though they are, of course, in the end unavoidable).
Barnett, in addition to his theological preparation, spent three years in a university studying Greek and Roman history, where he “came to appreciate how solid the evidence for Christianity was, relative to other great people and movements in antiquity” (p. 14).
Consider the case of ben Kosiba, a self-styled “President of Israel” who led a three-year campaign against Rome which resulted, as Rome reacted, in the deaths of half a million Jews and the razing of a thousand villages. Before being executed by the Romans in 135 A.D., he made quite a stir. But, amazingly enough, we know virtually nothing about him; little evidence endured to tell his story!
Compare the ben Kosiba record with New Testament accounts of Jesus, and you discover how extensively they document the origins of Christianity. Even if you ignore the NT, extra-biblical sources support its basic details. It’s obvious, for example, that Jesus actually existed (though some adamant skeptics have tried to disprove even that), for non-Christian sources such as Pliny, Tacitus, inscriptions at Pompey, and Josephus confirm it. If you doubt Jesus lived, you might as well doubt most everything that happened before you were born!
That the NT was written in the first century seems equally certain. (I remember one of my professors at the University of Oklahoma, who wondered far afield in his classes, glibly asserting that the New Testament was a second century concoction. His opinions were derived from 19th century German scholars who managed to brainwash a multitude of disciples, whose views he devoutly supported.)
But in fact it’s demonstrable that the NT is a set of first century documents. Early Fathers, such as St Clement of Rome and St Ignatius of Antioch, so extensively quoted both Paul’s letters and the Gospels that “it can be stated that twenty-five pieces of the New Testament were definitely in circulation by about the year 100” (p. 39). These were all written 20-40 years after the events they describe. Compare these documents with those we turn to when interested in Tiberius Caesar (emperor when Christ was crucified), virtually all of which were written a century after Tiberius lived.
Even more impressive is the data which indicates how accurately the NT documents were transmitted. The great numbers of early manuscripts, the widespread NT quotations in non-NT documents, and their early translations into other languages, all demonstrate their reliability. Again, compared with other ancient sources, such as Josephus or Tacitus, the antiquity and abundance and accuracy in the transmission of NT documents is without parallel.
Barnett persuasively argues that (as St Irenaeus of Lyons and Papias assert) John the Beloved wrote the Gospel of John, and that Peter’s recollections are preserved in Mark’s Gospel. As an historian, he finds almost incomprehensible the tendency of some biblical scholars to discount the judgments of second century writers such as Irenaeus and Papias who affirm such.
At this point I thoroughly share Barnett’s stance. I finished my Ph.D. in history before undertaking biblical studies. As an historian I was alternatively amazed, amused, astonished and angered by the cavalier arrogance with which some modern scholars imposed their assumptions and biases on ancient texts. On the one hand, they often demanded more of a document than one could reasonably expect, questioning its authenticity which it failed to measure up. On the other hand, they routinely assumed mysterious sources (the alleged “Q” underlying the Gospels) or tenuous hypotheses (the JDEP theory of the Peneteuch’s composition). Barrett also argues the four gospels indicate not so much collaboration (e.g. Matthew and Luke copying Mark) as genuinely independent perspectives of truthful witnesses. Though Paul did not write a “gospel”–though his intent was theological rather than historical–Barnett illustrates that most of the important historical events in the life of Jesus can be confirmed in the letters of Paul.
Paul’s letters were written before 65 A.D.; his indirect references are what historians look for as confirmation of past events. Add to Paul Luke’s Acts, filled with items confirmed in secular sources, and one grants William Ramsey’s assertion: “‘Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness'” (p. 150).
Finally, Barnett insists the NT records Jesus’ bodily Resurrection. To argue He just lived on in the minds and hearts of his followers, that some “spiritual” awareness transformed them into bold evangelists, makes absolutely no sense. When ben Kosiba was executed a century after Christ, his throngs of followers suddenly vanished. His movement collapsed with his decaying body. They didn’t even want to remember him!
With Jesus it was otherwise, and “the reason Jesus lived and lives subjectively in the memory of his followers is that he lived and lives objectively after three days in the tomb” (p. 170). Indeed, “The resurrection is inextricably part of the fabric of the New Testament; destroy it or remove it and the New Testament becomes an unreliable bundle of rags and tatters” (p. 171).
This is one of those books worth recommending to students (or thoughtful folks who’re not officially “students”) concerned with the historical credibility of the New Testament. It’s accurate and readable, a fresh reminder of how historically factual Christians have always judged their faith.
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Eta Linnemann studied under Germany’s elite biblical scholars–Rudolph Bultmann and Ernst Fuchs, Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. She passed the exacting hurdles which grant entrance into academia, ultimately becoming an professor of New Testament at Philipps University in Marburg. Along the way she published books and articles espousing the “historical-critical” methodology she’d been taught.
In Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1990), she announces her repudiation of that methodology–which she now insists is an atheistic ideology or “theology”–and sorrows for the damage it’s done to the Church of Jesus Christ.
She also laments the young people historical criticism has harmed: “We have put generation after generation of believing Christian young people, who were willing and eager to serve God, through this fire, sacrificing them to the Moloch of an atheistic theology. The result has been generation after generation of misguided guides” (p. 117).
In her introduction, which reads much like an impassioned manifesto, Linnemann declares: “My ‘No!’ to the historical theology stems from my ‘Yes!’ to my wonderful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to the glorious redemption he accomplished for me on Golgotha” (p. 17). Furthermore, “on the basis of various observations, discoveries, and a resulting self-awareness, I was forced to conclude two things I did not wish: (1) no ‘truth’ could emerge from this ‘scientific work on the biblical text’ and (2) such labor does not serve the proclamation of the gospel” (p. 17).
On a personal level, her lifelong immersion in biblical studies, following the “historical-critical methodology,” resulted in a “profound disillusionment” which led her into a variety of “addictions” (TV and alcohol). Graciously, God brought some believers into her life who cared for her, prayed with her, and helped her find the living Lord. In time, “By God’s grace and love I entrusted my life to Jesus” (p. 18).
That surrender resulted in a deliverance from her addictions and an entrance into the life she’d long longed for. It was as if she emerged from the fog into the sunshine. “I was able to recognize sin clearly as sin rather than merely make excuses for it as was my previous habit. I can still remember the delicious joy I felt when for the first time black was once more black and white was once more white; the two ceased to pool together as indistinguishable gray” (p. 18).
Concurrently she discovered the integrity and supernatural inspiration of God’s Word–“I recognized, first mentally, but then in a vital, experiential way, that Holy Scripture is inspired” (p. 20). Quite a revelation for a German university New Testament professor! Eyes opened by miracles taking place even today, her “scientific” biases against biblical miracles quickly dissolved. She also found Christ’s atoning work for sin on Calvary freed her from her own sins.
In view of all this, “That is why I say ‘No!’ to the historical-critical theology: I regard everything that I taught and wrote before I entrusted my life to Jesus as refuse” (p. 20). She has tossed into the trash, with the emotional zeal of a new convert, all the books and articles she earlier wrote–and she urges all who have them on their shelves to do likewise! She turned her life over to God’s guidance and now teaches in a Bible college in Indonesia, where she hopes her biblical studies contribute to spreading the Faith and furthering Christ’s Kingdom.
In the first chapter, she evaluates the modern university and its impact on biblical studies. In her judgment, universities since the Enlightenment have been atheistic in their assumptions and pagan in their functions. Thus any education which hopes to be truly Christian “can be established only by conscious dissociation from the modern European university and its history” (p. 49).
That dissociation must be radical! Simply gathering Christian teachers and students together will not suffice. Beginning classes with prayer may be pius, but not efficacious. “The content of the activities must be fundamentally transformed from the ground up. Entire areas of intellectual inquiry must be grounded in God’s Word” (p. 49). The Bible must be brought to the heart of every academic discipline. She writes as an advocate, it would seem, of Bible colleges–or at least Christian colleges completely suffused with Scripture.
For only the Bible is forever relevant to man’s endeavors. In a profound sense, Linnemann takes Luther’s adamant sola scriptura principle with utter seriousness. In fact, the Bible is more “modern” than the illusions which were judged “up-to-date” two decades ago! The “modern man” of the French Revolution, worshipping the goddess Reason, seems curiously antiquated compared with father Abraham! For Linnemann it’s back to the Bible if we’re to deal with what’s to come.
Having critiqued the university scene, she then discusses, in Part Two, “God’s Word and Historical-Critical Theology.” Here she insists that biblical scholars, seeking to be respectable and “scientific,” have deserted their true calling. “The Bible is no longer esteemed as God’s word in the way it is handled. It is taken for granted that the words of the Bible and God’s words are not identical” (p. 83). “Using grotesque literary methods” which would be shoveled aside in other disciplines, university researchers capriciously label “inauthentic” (i.e. non-Pauline) such canonical books as the pastoral letters, Ephesians and Colossians or dismember the Pentateuch with variations on Wellhausen’s scheme.
At the heart of this endeavor, lies a “faith in theology,” a “fundamental presupposition” which dictates all that follows: “that the final authority regarding what is true is the trained, professionally informed, regimented critical intellect. That is, holy Scripture is subordinated to reason” (p. 107). Such a presupposition clearly leaves God the Holy Spirit, both as inspirer and interpreter of the text, out of the inquiry.
So it’s time we call it what it is: “Historical-critical theology is heresy” (p. 124). Though usually guarded and gracious regarding individuals, lamenting rather than lambasting their errors, Linnemann leaves no doubt that she considers her former mentor, Rudolph Bultmann, utterly heretical!
What Linnemann urges is a “theology of faith” rather than a “faith in theology.” Only when we’re surrendered to the Word of God, open to its truth, submissive to its instructions, can we rightly read it. Consequently, “Questions are solved on one’s knees, not through ransacking commentaries” (p. 112). Certainly it helps to study carefully, to master the original languages, etc. but a “theologian does not, by virtue of his academic study, occupy the judge’s bench. God does” (p. 113).
For her, Scripture is verbally (though not mechanically) inspired, inerrant “not only in the area of faith and life but also in all other areas” (p. 147). How interesting to find a onetime “higher critic” ending up a virtual Fundamentalist!
* * * * *
Following up her assault on historical-critical theology, Linnemann has just published a more technical study which helps one understand the scholarly integrity of her earlier manifesto. It’s entitled Is There A Synoptic Problem: Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1992).
As most of you know, the “synoptic problem” deals with the question of whether Matthew and Luke used sections of Mark in writing their gospels–and whether there was yet another unknown source, “Q,” underlying all of them. But that’s not all that’s involved, Linnemann argues. What really underlies the historical-critical approach to the Synoptics is an unproven, largely philosophical assumption that the gospels do not in fact record eyewitness accounts and accurate recollections of Jesus’ words.
It assumes the NT contains “made-up words of Jesus and made-up stores about his actions. That the Gospel writers, independent of one another, made up the same stories and sayings two or even three times is quite improbable; … So under this presupposition, literary dependence is indispensable, for it permits one to understand the second, third, or even fourth version of given material as dependent on one original document” (p. 158).
In an interview which serves as an introduction, Linnemann says: “The solution to the Synoptic problem is the cornerstone of New Testament criticism. Remove it, and form criticism and redaction criticism also collapse. I am shocked when I look at the books of my former colleagues, which I used to hold in highest esteem, and examine the justification for their position. Instead of proof I find only assertions. Instead of arguments there is merely circular reasoning” (p. 10).
More strongly, she contends: “As improbable as it sounds, to this very day, historical-critical theology has never produced an impartial investigation of whether a literary dependence exists, be it direct or indirect, among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke–or whether these three Gospels are three equally original reports” (p. 11).
After a chapter recounting and evaluating two centuries of historical-critical scholarship, dominated by thinkers determined to deny any supernatural dimensions to scripture, Linnemann discusses some of the major modern figures in biblical studies. What she finds in their works is a series of assertions largely devoid of concrete evidence. Indeed: “The ‘history of the Synoptic tradition’ is a fairy tale of criticism” (p. 181).
Concerning the subject of her book, “Should it turn out that there is no literary dependence among the Synoptic Gospels, then the rug is pulled out from under about 40 percent of New Testament research as it is carried on within historical-critical circles” (p. 69).
So she tests the theory. Since two independent witnesses would tell the same basic story, anyone finding the same sequence of events in two gospels ought not assume it means any literary dependence. What would prove literary dependence would be demonstrating that the same words (including grammatical tenses) are used within relevant pericopes (narrative sections) to describe the same events.
But that you do not find in the Gospels! With meticulous care, Linnemann compares words. (Many pages in this book are simply lists, tables, charts, illustrating her precise research.) First you eliminate simple, common words like “and,”–people using the same language cannot avoid using lots of the same words. Then you bracket Jesus’ words. As seems reasonable to most of us, quotations attributed to Jesus should be basically identical in the three Synoptics, for the Master’s words would, one imagines, have been carefully repeated (and probably written down) by those who actually heard them. At this point you compare individual passages (pericopes) and check words, and the argument for literary dependence appears thin.
In fact, she insists: “Investigation of the extent of parallelism between Matthew, Mark, and Luke shows clearly that the data in the gospels yield no evidence for the literary dependence among the three Synoptics” (p. 106). Indeed, “Precisely in view of the measurable similarities in content, sequence, and form, every divergence of Matthew and Luke from Mark speaks against literary dependence” (p. 131).
What Linnemann concludes is this: the tradi”tional view of the Church was correct. The gospels were written by four different men, who based their books upon eyewitness (their own or others’) accounts, faithfully recording what Jesus said and did. “Behind what the Gospels report stand the words and deeds of Jesus.” Elementary as that seems, “That is the source of similarities in content and sequence of the pericopes. The Gospels all have the same foundation: What Jesus said, did, and suffered; that led inevitably to similarities in content” (p. 159).
In our day such ideologies as Freudianism and Marxism are fast falling by the wayside, looking more and more like curious dinosaurs, monuments to a by-gone era which collapsed of their own inner flaws. Significant challenges to Darwinism in the past decade allow one to wonder if it too will dissolve into the mists of deservedly forgotten historical theories. So one wonders if works such as Linnemann’s announce the beginnings of significant desertions from that nineteenth century ideology which most impacted the Church’s attitude and approach to scripture.