Science in Christian Perspective


The New Testament and Historical Criticism
Department of History
Oregon State University Corvallis, Oregon

From: JASA 26 (June 1974): 41-51.

Since the rise of modern biblical criticism the study of the New Testament has been characterized by a skepticism that is often extreme with regard to the historical credibility of the Gospel narratives. While in recent years historians of Greece and Rome have come to treat their sources with increasing respect, especially since external evidence has more often verified than contradicted them, New Testament scholars have in many cases retained an unwarranted skepticism towards the possibility of reconstructing detailed New Testament history from the Gospel records, even though their sources are as promising as those at the disposal of classical historians. Moreover, many New Testament theologians employ methods that appear arbitrary and would be rejected in most other fields of ancient history. Hence classical historians, using ordinary historical methods, often find the Gospel narratives a good deal more trustworthy than do many critical New Testament scholars.

The Problem of Historical Credence

One of the basic problems that each historian faces is how he should treat his sources, that is, what historical credence he should give them. The Gospels and the Book of Acts claim to present an accurate record of the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus and the growth of the early church. Any historian who deals with these accounts is faced at the outset with evaluating these claims.

The way in which an historian treats his sources differs according to his temperament and preconceptions; it may also differ according to the historical school to which he belongs or the idécs reçues of the era in which he lives. Modern historical methods for the most part date back to early nineteenth-century Germany. It was here for the first time that evidence at the disposal of the historian was systematically and critically examined. Historical documents were scrutinized for distortion and inaccuracies using newly-developed methods of source-criticism in an attempt to sift history from mythical or legendary accretions. The same mood that produced the beginning of critical historiography also produced a new kind of biblical criticism, especially associated with the Tubiogen school, notably of F. C. Bauer and David Strauss. This involved the use of the historical-critical method, as it has come to be called, and it arose from an effort to understand the Bible in purely historical and naturalistic terms, rejecting altogether the supernaturalism of orthodox theology. The result was a radical skepticism regarding the credibility of the Gospel narratives.


This scepticism was due not simply to the use of critical methods, but to the spirit in which those methods were used. Historical criticism of the early nineteenth century was much influenced by the secularising presuppositions of the Enlightenment. This was especially evident in biblical criticism. Not only did the Tubingen school use new methods of historiography but behind their approach was the Aufklarung belief that miracles do not happen and therefore any supernatural element must be rejected as a breach of the laws of nature. Thus they set out to reconstruct New Testament history without the supernatural element. Faced with accounts that were shot through and through with the miraculous they became extremely skeptical of their sources. Their presuppositions led them to recreate New Testament history along far different lines from those presented by the Gospels.

If the Gospels suffered under the impact of the new criticism, so did other ancient sources. The scepticism amongst the Tubingen school with regard to the New Testament was paralleled by that of the historians of Greece and Rome towards their sources. German historians in the nineteenth century, influenced as they were by positivism, were attempting to write 'scientific history.' They had a set idea of what history was and how it should be written. They tended to disparage ancient authors whose methods did not fit the canons of historiography that they had established. One ancient historian who suffered under the rigid conception of nineteenth-century historiography was Herodotus of Halicamassus, who lived in the fifth century B.C. and was the first Greek to write systematic history. But the 'Father of History' did not meet the standards of nineteenth-century historians. He wrote in the pleasant, easy manner of a story-teller; his very style raised questions: could this seemingly credulous collector of fantastic stories be any more than a naive, superficial historian? German historians replied in the negative and contrasted Herodotus unfavorably with Thucydides, whose style was difficult and tortured. Thucydides was admired as the master ancient historian because he seemed to write history according to the 'scientific' standards of the nineteenth century. He employed painstaking research, carefully constructed his narrative, was free from the influence of religion and superstition, and seemed unbiased and impartial. Herodotus, by contrast, fared badly. He liked to tell a good story and would digress at the drop of a hat; he seemed superstitious and pietistic; he was willing to record every account told to him (although perceptive critics might have noted that he plainly stated that he didn't believe everything he recorded). Herodotus the 'Father of History' seemed rather to be the 'father of lies.'

A Decrease in Scepticism

Gradually in this century such views have undergone change.2 As more and more archaeological evidence has come to light from all over the Mediterranean world, historians have been faced with abundant extra-literary sources with which to test our ancient authors: archaeological remains, inscriptions, papyri, and coins. In surprisingly few cases has this material controverted the literary sources; rather the archaeological finds have tended time after time to confirm the ancient authors. Among the authors who benefitted was Herodotus: in case after case it is now apparent that Herodotus' descriptions are accurate and his reporting trustworthy, and his reputation has for some time been rising. Contrary to the practice of historians of even a generation ago, we are more apt to trust his account even where we can't confirm Herodotus directly, since his reporting seems reliable where it can he checked.

The findings of archaeologists have tended to temper the skepticism of the ancient historian toward his texts. In contrast to historians of a few generations ago, he tends to approach the literary sources with a good deal of respect. Historians exhibit a more trusting and conservative attitude towards the writers of antiquity because they have proven to deserve that approach. This is not to say that historians have ceased to examine their sources critically, but they have for the most part come to have a good deal more confidence than their predecessors of the nineteenth century.

But Not Among New Testament Scholars

Thus it is surprising that while historians of Greece and Rome have been growing in confidence in their sources, New Testament scholars have retained what appears to be a hypercritical attitude toward the Gospel narratives long after such an attitude has given way to a more sensitive and open approach among classical scholars. This is especially surprising because archaeological discoveries in the last two or three generations have done much to corroborate the biblical record in detail. The archaeological evidence bearing on the New Testament is not so imposing as that bearing on the Old Testament, but it has been sufficient to enhance the credibility of the Gospels and Acts. This has long been evident to classical historians, who give the New Testament high marks for historical accuracy. For example, Sir William Ramscy, who in the last century acquired an intimate knowledge of the topography and archaeology of Asia Minor, observed that Luke had an extremely accurate acquaintance with Asia Minor and the Greek East of the first century. Ramsey wrote of Luke:

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history, and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. He seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.2

This high estimate by a distinguished classical archaeologist of Luke has been re-echoed in recent years by several historians. A. N. Sherwin-White, a distinguished Roman historian, writes:

For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming...any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.3

Yet there are many New Testament scholars who persist in ignoring the strong evidence in favour of the high historical reliability of Acts; indeed A. A. T. Ehrhardt observed that historians have generally maintained a higher estimate of Luke as an historian than have theologians.4

Historical Criticism of Fourth Gospel

This is not to deny that there have been advances in the historical criticism of the New Testament. One of the most interesting developments in the study of the Gospels in the last few years has been the fresh reappraisal of the historical value of the Fourth Gospel. Until recently it had been almost a critical orthodoxy to set the Fourth Gospel over against the Synoptics. The Synoptics place Jesus' ministry in Galilee, while John centers it in Jerusalem. The style of Jesus' teaching in John's Gospel is markedly different from that of the Synoptics, organized as it is into long discourses rather than in the short sayings we find in the Synoptic Gospels. It was assumed that the writer's background reflected the Hellenistic world and embodied a radical interpretation of Jesus' ministry and teaching in Hellenistic terms, and that the author's viewpoint represented a long theological development which resulted in a theological rather than a historical picture of Jesus. Consequently it was assumed that the Fourth Gospel was not to be regarded as a witness to the Jesus of history, and little historical value was attributed to it.

Today all this has been changed. In some quarters this change has been influenced by the discovery and study of the Qumran literature; in others it has been the result of further study of the Fourth Gospel in its New Testament context. It used to be thought that the wealth of placenames, exact locations, and persons in John's Gospel was simply 'name-dropping,' an attempt by a pseudonymous author to lend authenticity to his account. But archaeological discoveries and a greater understanding of Palestinian locations attest in detail the Fourth Gospel's accuracy in depicting the background of Jesus' ministry. Moreover, the view once held that John's approach was not historical but essentially mystical, and that he was not concerned

It is surprising that New Testament scholars have retained what appears to he a hypercritical attitude toward the Gospel narratives long after such an attitude has given way to a more sensitive and open approach among classical scholars.

whether his narratives were factual but regarded them merely as illustrations of metaphysics, has recently been challenged by C. H. Dodd and J. A. T. Robinson among others. Robinson believes that the Fourth Evangelist regarded the tradition of Jesus' life basically from the same point of view as the other Evangelists, that the background of his ministry is Palestinian, that there is a real continuity in this tradition going back to the earliest days of Christianity, and that John's Gospel can be regarded as a reliable historical witness of Jesus.5

Reasons for Confidence

The archaeological confirmation and the advances made in the historical study of the New Testament in the last generation or two have given us more reason than ever before to be confident in the general accuracy and credibility of the historical portions of the New Testament. I have already observed that classical historians find themselves in a similar situation with regard to their sources for Greek and Roman history, and they have, for the most part, adjusted their attitudes and adopted a more respectful approach to their sources. But despite some adjustments in outlook, such as the 'New Look on the Fourth Gospel,' there has been no corresponding shift among a large body of New Testament scholars. Instead, there remains among many theologians what to a classical historian seems to be an unwarranted skepticism regarding the possibility of recontructing the history of Jesus' ministry and message from the Gospels. The belief of Bultmann, for example, that the historical Jesus is unknowable, that the history of his message and mission cannot he written and that the task of reconstructing history from the Gospels is not only impossible but illegitimate, seems to an historian simply incredible. Bultmann's views cannot, of course, be regarded as representative of all New Testament scholars. Nevertheless, it seems that even among more moderate theologians there is more distrust of the Gospel records than is warranted.6

Reasons for Persistent Scepticism

With the progress that has been made in the study of the Gospels in this century why do such views still obtain among New Testament scholars? Two reasons suggest themselves to me. First of all, New Testament criticism has from the early nineteenth century been dominated by an excessively analytical approach that has attempted to sort out the divergent elements that make up the Gospels. The result has been to produce a belief that the Gospels preserve little more than a mass of fragmentary and contradictory traditions, what C. H. Dodd has called 'a New Testament of bits and pieces.' Now source-criticism is an important part of historical reconstruction. Where excessive emphasis has been placed on Quellenforschung, however, the result has sometimes been to introduce undue scepticism regarding the possibility of an accurate transmission of historical material; to point out inconsistencies, conflicting sources, prejudice, and legendary material and to assume that because of the presence of these elements a narrative has little historical worth; and by dissection of a narrative to reduce a source to the level of what R. G. Collingwood called 'scissors-and-paste history.'7 This is true of the approach to the New Testament that has dominated the last generation of New Testament scholarship, the school of form-criticism. The form-critics have attempted to get behind the written Gospels and their literary sources to the oral stage of the Gospel tradition. Such an attempt is certainly worth making, but it is a method that is by the very nature of the materials bound to produce highly uncertain results, for the approach is subjective and its results must always be tentative.

One of the basic principles of many form-critics is the assumption that the early church played a significant creative role in reformulating the traditions surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus with the result that Jesus' teachings came very quickly-in the brief span of a generationion be misrepresented by the early church. Thus from the Gospels it is held that we can recapture for the most part only the faith of the primitive church, which has reinterpreted the original teachings of its founder. Such a view holds little respect for the ability of the early Christians accurately to transmit by oral tradition the message of Jesus. Yet recent studies, both in history and anthropology, have shown the ability of oral tradition to maintain an extremely accurate account of historical events without distortion or contamination.

Herodotus provides evidence of this. A. N. Sherwin-White has pointed out the similarities between the type of material with which both the Gospel-writers and Herodotus were dealing.8 Herodotus set out to write a history of the Persian Wars. He had few written records on which to rely in Greece, and in the Near East, where he had records, he is unlikely to have been able to use them; so he was forced to rely on oral tradition. Wherever he went Herodotus gathered accounts of historical events that had taken place from 50 to 150 years earlier; some had been passed down by word of mouth for several generations. Not very promising material, it would seem. Yet in the past century historians have scrutinized Herodotus with the help of archaeological evidence and rigorous historical criticism. We have collected enough evidence to be in a position to say that the material that Herodotus gathered from oral tradition was characterized by a high degree of accuracy. Herodotus dealt with oral traditions regarding famous battles, heroic deeds, and religious institutions-subjects that lend themselves easily to magnification and distortion. Yet the cases in which significant distortions have occurred are (as far as we can tell) few. Nor was Herodotus an objective, detached historian: he was passionately interested in his material, moralistic, and religious. Yet his attitudes did not seriously affect his concern for truth.9

Why then should the form-critics doubt the ability of the early church (a small and closelyknit community) to maintain an accurate recollection of the events of Jesus' life and teachings? The Gospel-writers had not to deal with material handed down orally for several generations, as did Herodotus, but with material transmitted through one generation. And can it really be imagined that Jesus' hearers, his very disciples, would seriously distort his message after his death? Rather it seems that they would he at pains to preserve an accurate account of his teachings. The powerful personality of Jesus impressed many, and some of his followers must have lived long enough to carry a vivid recollection of him till the end of the first century (just as there are some today who can recall vividly events in which they participated in the First World War or even the Boer War). It was in the second century that the myth-making began, and we can see elements of it in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works of that period. But the real personality of Jesus obviously made a strong impression on his followers, and this personality is apparent in the Gospels, which are by their very quality so easily distinguishable from the legendary material that grew up later.

The archaeological confirmation and the advance made in the historical study of the New Testament in the last generation or two have given us more reason than ever before to be confident in the general accuracy and credibility of the historical portions of the New Testament.

The Gospels as Historical Sources

Thus it seems to the classical historian that New Testament scholars are in a most advantageous position for reconstructing the life of Jesus. They have several documents that contain eyewitness accounts of Jesus' ministry written by contemporaries. Yet the results they produce seem much more meagre than we should expect. An objection that is often raised to the argument that I am pursuing is that there is a good deal of difference between what the writers of the Gospels were trying to do and what historians might attempt. The Evangelists were not writing history or even biography; thus they did not always take the trouble to arrange their material chronologically. Nor were they neutral observers; they were deeply committed by faith to their subject and they interpreted their subject-matter in the light of this faith. The Gospels were not written to be used as historical source-material: "But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31). Of course all this is true. But this does not mean that the Gospels cannot be used as historical sources, and good ones at that. One of the most important sources for the reconstruction of Greek and Roman history is the Greek writer Plutarch, who lived in the second century after Christ. Plutarch was a man of letters, cultivated and widely read, but not really a scholar. Plutarch wrote a series of lives of well-known Greek and Roman statesmen. He was removed by nearly 700 years from some of his subjects, and he was dependent for his material on both primary and secondary sources. Plutarch was not a historian but a biographer (he himself days, at the beginning of his life of Alexander, that he is not writing history but lives). He was not, as A. W. Gomme has pointed out,10 really even a biographer in the strict sense, but an essayist. His purpose was not to give a detailed account of a man's life or career; what he was primarily interested in was a man's character. He wished to illustrate virtue or vice in his subjects; hence he passes over great events briefly in favor of anecdotes or sayings that illustrate a man's character and moral conduct.11 Plutarch is indifferent to the accurate dating of events and he sometimes mentions an event out of chronological order if it suits his purpose to illustrate a man's personality. Thus his narrative is marked by omissions and some distortion, but this does not prevent the classical historian from using Plutarch extensively, while at the same time being aware of his limitations.12

Differences in the Gospel Narratives

It is not uncommon to read that the great divergences that exist in the Gospel narratives about certain events in the life of Jesus, such as the Resurrection, make it difficult to understand what really happened. This scepticism is strange, for to a classical historian what seems impressive about the Gospels is not their difference of viewpoint or occasional divergence but rather their agreement in so many areas. There are many instances in ancient history where we face much more serious disagreements than those in the Gospels; yet this does not cause the historian to despair of ever attaining knowledge of what took place. Moreover, there are important figures of antiquity for whom the basic sources reflect far more serious differences than to do our sources for the life of Jesus.

Socrates and Alexander come to mind. The sources for the life of Socrates raise problems. Basically we are dependent for our information regarding his life on the writings of three men: Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon. At first glance the portraits of Socrates painted by these three men appear antithetical to one another. Indeed in the nineteenth century scholars inaugurated a search for the "historical Socrates," not unlike the quest of the "historical Jesus." Because of the difficulty of reconciling our sources there was a tendency at the turn of the century to an almost total scepticism on the part of many scholars about the possibility of knowing anything about the "historical Socrates." The foremost Socratic scholar, Herinann Diels,

The historian should be willing to evaluate and test critically any evidence that comes to hand and he should not a priori rule out any possibility

called Socrates an "unknown X." Today the situation is quite different. Most students of Socrates are confident of their ability to control their sources and make sense of them. There is little doubt that we have the materials for the reconstruction of Socrates' life and teaching.13 The historical scepticism concerning the possibility of describing the "historical Socrates" is merely a chapter in the history of scholarship.

Alexander the Great presents one of the most intractable problems in ancient historiography. 14 Our evidence for his life and career comes from six sources of the most divergent nature. Our earliest substantial narrative, that of Diodorus, was composed nearly three centuries after Alexander's death. Our most trustworthy source for Alexander, that of Arrian, was written two centuries after Diodorus. Several disparate strains are to be found in the literary sources (e.g., pro- and anti-Alexander material). So much legend, romance, sensationalism, gossip, slander, and anecdote crept into the tradition about Alexander at an early date that sorting all of it out is a difficult problem in source-criticism and historical reconstruction. Moreover, the complex personality of Alexander has produced a variety of modem interpretations of the man and Eugene Borza has remarked that "the startlingly dissimilar portraits of Alexander which issue from modern historians can be attributed at least as much to the psychological predilections of the scholar as to the state of the evidence itself."15 Yet despite the very real problems that surround the writing of any modem history of Alexander there is general agreement that his career can be reconstructed not only in its major outlines, but in considerable detail.

Naturalistic Presuppositions

Besides the undue emphasis on source-criticism I believe that there is a second factor that vitiates much current historical criticism of the New Testament: the attempt to explain the origin and growth of Christianity in purely naturalistic terms. This is part of the heritage of the Tubiugen school of New Testament scholarship, and of course it goes back to the Enlightenment. An often unspoken assumption of much New Testament criticism is the view that the evidence for the miraculous element in the Gospels cannot he taken at face value. We are sometimes told by theologians that the historical method involves assumptions that exclude the possibility of divine intervention, or that as historians we do not have the tools to deal with miracles because they lack analogy in our experience. Since the eighteenth century it has been common to apply to history the assumption of the physical sciences of a cause-and effect relationship within a closed continuum. But historians should not permit their discipline to be fitted into a Procrustean bed of preconceived theory based on a mechanistic view of the universe. Historical research does not circumscribe the limits of what can and cannot happen; rather it is a tool for discovering inductively what actually happened. The historian knows that every event with which he deals is unique and that no two events occur in exactly the same way. The historian should be willing to evaluate and test critically any evidence that comes to hand and he should not a priori rule out any possibility. This means that he should be open to the possibility that the events in the Gospels happened as they are described.

Much modern criticism of the New Testament seems to be based on the assumption that Stephen Neill attributes to Kirsopp Lake, who "took the view that the Resurrection could not possibly have occurred in the way in which it is recorded in the New Testament; therefore it must have occurred in some other way."16 Biblical history written from this viewpoint is open to the shifting sands of idées reçues. It might be objected that the acceptance of the supernatural clement is not practised in any other area of ancient history. If we exclude or excise the divine element from other historical documents why should we not do the same in dealing with the Gospels? The answer is that the Gospels describe

The currently dominant schools of New Testament scholars (mostly theologians and not historians) have limited themselves unnecessarily by allotting the intrusion of improper philosophical presuppositions into their work and by the use of hypercritical methods of research that are applied in no other area of history.

events that are sui generis, and the acceptance of these events as historical is dependent on acceptance of the claims of Jesus to be the Christ. If these claims are true, there can be no philosophical objection to the miraculous element in the Gospels. And these claims must he evaluated in part by the veracity and credibility of the documents that describe them. One sometimes feels that the extreme and often improbable reconstructions of New Testament history by some theologians reflect an unwillingness to come to grips with the supernatural element in the Gospels, whose writers were proclaiming that God had intervened in time and space in Jesus Christ.

Theologians Could Learn from Classical Historians

It is encouraging to see that some scholars engaged in the "new quest of the historical Jesus" admit the possibility of knowing as much about the life of Jesus as they do, in spite of the persistence of over-rigorous methods. But to an ordinary historian, trained in squeezing the elements of history out of fai' less promising material than the Gospel narratives, it seems that we are in a position to know much more than many form-critics admit. The currently dominant schools of New Testament scholars (who are mostly theologians and not historians) have limited themselves unnecessarily by allowing the intrusion of improper philosophical presuppositions into their work and by the use of hypercritical methods of research that are applied in no other area of history. Every discipline creates its own methods of research and if parochialism is not to develop these methods should be compared from time to time with those of related fields. Theologians perhaps could supplement their use of methods developed for the critical study of the New Testament with some of the insights gained by classical historians in the last few generations. I am not suggesting that New Testament scholars return to a pre-critical historiography, only that they recognize the essential historical reliability that the New Testament Gospels have shown themselves to possess. A century of the most rigorous criticism has demonstrated that they demand a far more respectful treatment than they are often given.


1See, e.g., R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford 1946), pp. 17-20, 28-31; and Peter Green, 'Clio Perennis,' in Essays in Antiquity (London 1960), pp. 63-73.
2Quoted by F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (fifth edition, Grand Rapids 1960), p. 91. For an estimate of Ramsay and his work see W. Ward Gasque, Sir William M. Ramsay, Archaeologist and New Testament Scholar (Grand Rapids 1966).
3Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford 1963), p. 189.
4See Gasque, op. cit. p. 62.
5J. A. T. Robinson, 'The Place of the Fourth Gospel,' in The Roads Converge (New York 1963), pp. 49-74.
6This is true of the most widely acclaimed and influential recent life of Jesus, Gunther Bornkamm's Jesus von Nazareth
(English translation, New York 1960). Bornkamm is a student of Bultmaon who rejects Bultmann's extreme scepticism but nevertheless seems to take a far more limited view of the possibility of reconstructing Jesus' life and ministry than the materials at our disposal would lead us to expect. See the comments of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961, pp. 278-283.
7It is not only the New Testament that has suffered from this approach. The excessive use of Quellenkritik in the study of the Roman historian Livy has caused NI. L. W. Laistner to write: 'The conclusions reached by modern critics, moreover, are so often mutually contradictory or destructive that one is disposed to question the value of much that passes for scholarly investigation' (The Greater Roman Historians, Berkeley 1963, p. 83).
8Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pp. 189-191.
9See A. D. Momigliano, 'The Place of Hensdotus in the History of Historiography,' in Studies in Historiography (London 1966), pp. 128-129.
10A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Volume I (Oxford 1959), pp. 54-57.
11See Plutarch's comments in Alexander 1. 1.
12After I had written this paragraph I discovered that Stephen Neil l had made a similar comparison between Plutarch and the Evangelists (The Interpretation of the New Testament, pp. 260-261).
13For full discussions of the sources and the problems in writing the life of Socrates see A. E. Taylor, Socrates, The Man and His Thought (New York 1953), pp. 11-36; and W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge 1971). pp. 5-57.
14For a convenient discussion of the sources for Alexander and the problems in reconstructing his career see Eugene Borza's introduction to Ulrich Wilcken's Alexander the Great (New York 1967), pp. ix-xxviii.
15Ibid., p. xi.
16The Interpretation of the New Testament, p. 281.