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Evangelists with Agendas

Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John use their Gospels to finagle a useful but false portrait of Jesus?

Skeptics often argue that the New Testament authors weren’t concerned with faithfully conveying a historically accurate portrait of Jesus. Rather, the argument goes, these authors cared more about using Jesus of Nazareth as a device to push their respective agendas.

For example, concerning the historical value of the Gospel accounts, Allen D. Callahan, associate professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, states, “I don’t think that the people who are responsible for those documents were staying up at night worried about those kind of things.” Harold W. Attridge, Yale Divinity School’s version of Callahan, put it this way: “Basically, early Christians wanted to use these stories for moral edification. For a general message about salvation. Jesus lived. He died. He saved us from our sins. There’s going to be an end to the world on judgment. A few basic phrases like that” (emphases added).

It’s this sort of attitude that led the Jesus Seminar to conclude in 1991 that only twenty percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus by the Gospel authors are authentic, the implication being that the New Testament authors invented the remaining eighty. Why? To push their respective agendas.

So what can we can we say in response?

Perhaps the strongest response is that the New Testament authors omit material we’d expect to find if they were making this stuff up. We know historically that there were several controversies that surfaced in the early Church after Jesus’ ascension. These controversies were no small matter. They threatened to rip the New Testament Church apart.

For example, St. Luke records that there were new converts to Christianity from Judea who were teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). According to Luke, this was “no small dissension,” and there was much “debate.” It was such a big deal that Paul and Barnabas had to go up to Jerusalem for the apostles and the elders to convene and consider the matter (v. 2). It was also an issue of central focus for Paul in his letters to the Romans and Galatians.

The Gospel writers could have easily solved this first-century controversy by inventing teachings of Jesus that stipulated the resolutions to these problems. For example, when John records Jesus saying his disciples must believe in him to have eternal life (John 3:16), he could have easily included “and not by circumcision.”

Something else we don’t find coming from the lips of Jesus is resolutions to the various controversies that Paul had to deal with in the church at Corinth—which spiritual gifts to prioritize (1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 19), how to deal with women speaking during liturgical assemblies (vv. 34-36), and others.

Remember, Paul’s letters were among the earliest New Testament documents, many of which were written before the synoptic Gospels. So if the Gospel writers were fabricating their stories about Jesus, we’d expect them to put some of Paul’s instructions on the lips of Jesus in order to justify what Paul had to say about the above controversies.

For example, when Jesus gives the apostles instruction to bind and loose within the context of dealing with an unruly believer (Matt. 18:15-18), it would have been easy for Matthew to include, “And when women act unruly in the churches, or when Christians act unruly when speaking in tongues, you can exercise your authority to bind and loose by instructing them to keep silent.”

Since we don’t find in the Gospels Jesus providing resolutions to these controversies in the Corinthian church, we have good reason to conclude that the Gospel writers, and even the earlier Jesus traditions they drew from, didn’t finagle a portrait of Jesus simply to push their respective agendas.

For a second response, we can look to New Testament scholar Craig Keener. He argues that the rural Galilean characteristics found in the Gospels fit Jesus’ Palestinian Jewish milieu better than that of the later church, which after Jesus’ departure became urban both in Judea and throughout the empire. Per Keener, we shouldn’t expect such characteristics of the Jewish milieu if these stories were fabricated. Keener lists several things as examples:

  • The first half of the Lord’s Prayer closely resembles standard Jewish prayers, especially the Kaddish.
  • The Pharisees’ divorce question reflects a debate among Pharisaic schools from Jesus’ day.
  • The warning that it would be “measured” to one as one measured to others (Matt. 7:2; Luke 6:38).
  • Removing the beam from your own eye before trying to remove the chip from another’s (Matt. 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42).
  • Jewish sages often used the phrase, “To what then should I compare?” (Matt. 11:16; Luke 7:31, HCSB), especially to introduce parables.
  • They often used the phrase, “So-and-so is like” (Matt. 11:16; 13:24; 25:1; see also Mark 4:26, 31; 13:34; Luke 6:48-49).
  • “Moving mountains” may have been a Jewish metaphor for accomplishing what was difficult or virtually impossible (though rabbis, who preserve it, apply it especially to labor in Torah).
  • Later Jewish teachers, not likely influenced by Jesus, could depict what was impossible or close to impossible as a large animal “passing through a needle’s eye.”
  • Current Pharisaic debates about purity with respect to the inside or outside of cups.

Keener references scholarly sources for each of the above examples in the essay from which the list is taken (“Gospel Truth: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” in Come Let Us Reason

For our final response, we can appeal to Paul. Although he is not one of the Gospel writers, whom the above argument targets, he is a New Testament writer who provides us with explicit evidence that he wasn’t interested in taking liberties to alter the apostolic tradition concerning Jesus. And if Paul wrote with this intention, , it’s reasonable to think the Gospel writers, who wrote after Paul, were of the same mindset. This is especially true of Luke, who was a companion of Paul (Phil. 23-24; Col. 4:10-11, 14; 2 Tim. 4:11) and would have most certainly looked to Paul as an apostolic source for information concerning the life and teachings of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

Consider, for example, how in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul makes a clear distinction between what the Lord has taught directly and the instruction that he gives in virtue of the authority invested to him. In verses 10-11, he speaks of what the Lord commands: “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Then, immediately following in verse 12, he refers to his teaching: “To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.”

New Testament scholar Michael Licona aptly notes concerning Paul’s distinction here:

Paul did not do what numerous scholars often accuse the early Christians of doing: attribute a teaching to Jesus in order to answer a present situation he had not actually addressed. We observe in 1 Corinthians 7 that Paul refused to pass off his teachings as though they were from Jesus.

It’s interesting that our skeptic friends ask us to believe that the New Testament authors put words into Jesus’ mouth in the face of evidence, both implicit and explicit, that they made a conscious effort to do the opposite. This argument, therefore, doesn’t succeed in showing that the Gospel writers invented a Jesus divorced from history to push their own agendas. Rather than the Gospel writers not being concerned with the historical facts, it’s actually the skeptic who fails.

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