The New Testament is a Myth: If someone is claiming that the New Testament is a myth, it might be good to ask them: “What do you mean by that” because there are different types of myth. Usually, when people say that the New Testament is a myth they either mean that a:
- The New Testament is a Myth Borrowed. These are the Jesus myther’s spurred on by the internet and people’s ignorance. They claim that nothing in Christianity is original but that it is a rip-off of other pagan myths, like Horus, Orisus, Mithra, etc. They are akin to the 911 truther’s or the holocaust deniers. They are not taken seriously by scholars, but have tons of websites and youtube videos. Even athiest and skeptical scholars deny this claim.
- The New Testament is a Myth Built Up: This is like a pearl building up around a grain of sand. The grain of sand would be that there was a Jewish teacher named Jesus who had gained a following, provoked the authorities, and was executed in Jerusalem, but that over the decades stories were built up around this man until he became the divine figure in the gospels. This is a popular position in secular scholarship.
So, is there myth in the New Testament? “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16 ESV)
Is there myth in the NT? Insofar as NT writers take up the question the answer is a blunt and unequivocal No! The word itself is found only five times (1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:4; Tit. 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:16) and in every case the writers completely repudiate myth . . . Myth is unreal, un- true, unhistorical, in contrast to the reality, truth and historicity of the gospel. - James Dunn
So here’s where you tell me, “You’re just using the New Testament to verify the New Testament - you can’t do that. that’s circular reasoning” Well, actually in this case, it’s not circular reasoning, because a myth is only a myth until you ask the storyteller if the thing really happened. And the New Testament authors repeatedly say, “We were not telling made-up stories.” Now you don't have to believe them, you could call them liars or believe them to have been deceived, but whatever they were, they were not myth-makers.
Set in opposition to the idea of telling “cleverly devised myths” is the claim, “We were eye-witnesses.” This is the claim of the New Testament - not only we didn’t write myths, but we were are giving our eyewitness testimony. As John begins his Letter that we call 1st John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” Four books of the New Testament, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and the First letter and gospel of John, specifically claim to be eye-witness reports. Other books testify to the eyewitness accounts of others who they have personally had contact with.
- Luke 1:1–3: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,”
- 1 Corinthians 15:3–8: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
- Still Other New Testament books are attributed to authors who would have been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry. James and Jude were his brothers - who tradition records were not followers of Jesus during his life, but somehow experienced conversion soon after their brother’s death. Perhaps it was because of those post-resurrection meetings.
The book of Acts speaks of the importance of eyewitness testimony to the foundational preaching of the early church - the entire church is based on eyewitness accounts:
- Acts 1:21–22 “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
- Peter’s first sermon’s in Acts 2 and 3 both testify as eye-witness reports and In chapter 4 the stakes get higher, under threats from the authorities to stop preaching in the name of Jesus … or else, Peter and John answered them, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Now there are two types of witnesses: Reliable and Unreliable witnesses. Which of these types were the writers of the New Testament?
Cold Case Christianity:
J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective. That means he investigates murders that were never solved but are then re-opened at a later time. Cold-cases have little or no hard forensic evidence, and so eyewitness statements are particularly important. Whether re-interviewing previous witnesses or identifying and interviewing new witnesses, the analysis of their testimony is critical to the possible closure of the case. Consequently, Jim Wallace was trained in ‘Forensic Statement Analysis’ – that is the scientific analysis of witness statements to determine their truth and reliability. He was used to analysing evidence and in particular knew what to look for in a reliable eyewitness statement.
Seen by friends as an "angry atheist" and "skeptic", he started to read the Gospels and found himself using the same approach to assessing Mark’s Gospel as he used in his work.
Something about the Gospels struck me as more than mythological storytelling. The Gospels actually appeared to be ancient eyewitness accounts.
Mark’s Gospel, he concluded, appeared to be based on the eyewitness accounts of Peter. This was a turning point – if the evidence showed that the Gospels were based on eyewitness accounts, the statements they made could be trusted and needed to be treated seriously. At the very least, they were worthy of serious consideration. Wallace put the New Testament through the same four -pronged test that he used for decades interviewing eyewitnesses.
- Were they present
- Does their story hold up?
- Were they biased?
- Were they recorded accurately?
Thankfully, we’ve already worked through two of Wallace’s criteria in evaluating the reliability of an eye-witness.
Were they present?
We looked at some of this a few weeks ago, when we explored whether or not the New Testament writings were forgeries. The idea is, were the letters of the New Testament written by the men who knew Jesus. Another of Wallace’s principles:
Were they Recorded Accurately?
It’s important in criminal investigations to make sure that the evidence is handled, recorded and preserved. Did the story change or were the reports tampered with? This is what we looked at last week - Is what we have now what they wrote then?
Does Their Story Hold Up?
One of the things that is both immediately obvious and somewhat disconcerting to people when they first read the gospels is that sometimes the details in the story don’t seem to line up at first glance. Consider the calling of the first disciples: Matthew’s account simply says this:
“While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18–22 ESV)
Now, there are some puzzling things in this account: why would they leave their nets so immediately to follow a guy who just showed up on their beach? Well now, read Luke’s account and you see it is very different. In Luke’s account Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and tells Peter to let down his nets. Peter does so and get’s such a great load of fish in his nets that they break. After coming to shore, now with partners James and John in tow, Jesus tells them that they will be catching men and they leave everything and follow him. There’s very clearly two separate accounts being told here - yet Wallace says this is exactly what you are looking for when verifying eye-witnesses. If the accounts are too similar in their details, there is a good chance that the witnesses “got their story together” beforehand in which case their testimony is less trustworthy. So the differences are helpful in establishing that the witnesses did not smooth out their stories beforehand. But yet the differing details of the second account also help explain some of the questions raised by the first. See, we now know that Jesus does not just call them to follow him out of thin air. He spends time with them and performs a miracle in front of them. That’s why they are able to leave so immediately. Also, remember, Matthew’s account included the detail, “they were mending their nets.” From what? Well in Luke account we learn that they were partners of Peter and Andrew, who had just busted their nets with the miraculous catch of fish! In Wallace’s experience as an expert in interviewing eye-witnesses, these types of accounts are exactly what one finds.
In another example, the feeding of the five thousand, Wallace’s keen detective mind notices that in John’s account, Philip and Andrew are specifically mentioned. This stands out a bit because they are not often mentioned in the gospel stories as much as Peter, James, John, Judas, etc. Jesus asks Philip to buy bread and it is Andrew who brings the little boy to Jesus. Yet when one reads Luke, it is clear why. Luke is the only Gospel writer who notes that this miracle happened in Bathsaida. Why is that important, because John’s gospel tells us in a different part (not connected to this miracle) that Andrew and Philip were from Bethsaida. Now we put these accounts together and understand that Jesus asked Philip about sources for the bread because He knew that Philip was from this part of the country. Philip and Andrew naturally tried their best to respond, given that they were uniquely qualified to answer Jesus’s question.
Wallace: The primary concern that most of us have when evaluating witnesses is the issue of credibility. A witness who was present at the time of the crime but who is lying about what happened is of no value.
The gospel writers describe customs and government functions, list rulers, speak of obscure villages, and use proper names consistent with the time and places that they are writing about. Now, notice, we don’t have all the details available to us, just as a detective does not have the full picture as he is making his case. Yet “few ancient records have been as critically examined as the New Testament Gospels. Few other documents from antiquity have been as heavily challenged and scrutinized.”
Were they biased?
Wallace: The last area of consideration when it comes to evaluating witnesses is the issue of bias. It’s often argued the Gospels should not be trusted because they were written by Christians who loved Jesus and wanted to make a case for his Deity (whether true or not). But there’s a difference between bias prior to an experience and conviction following an experience. It can hardly be argued that the Gospel authors had a bias prior to their involvement with Jesus. In fact, the gospels fairly present the skepticism and slow understanding of the disciples as they sat under Jesus. We cannot fault the Gospel authors for their later conviction related to Jesus if they truly saw what they recorded in the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection. Bias comes down to motive, and motive always comes down to three driving desires: financial greed, sexual/relational lust, and the pursuit of power. Absent any of these driving motivations, ancient accounts ought to be received as unbiased.
Basic human nature would state that people perpetuate hoaxes because they have some self-serving motivation to do so. We want to be famous, we long to manipulate others, we stand to gain materially from the sale of a book or promotion of a website, we want to seem important. Yet if there seems to be absolutely no gain to the individual for propagating a lie, one would have good measure to think that the person telling the lie believes it to be true. Now think of the first believers, imagine the followers of Christ meeting in the upper room, wishing to perpetuate the hoax that their master had risen from the dead. Each of the men in that room, would be giving up much personal freedom, homes and homelands, possessions and community goodwill, in fact each of these men would in fact face martyrdom and exile for something they knew to be a lie, without one of them ever recanting. And none of them recanted. This is actually the fact that led Chuck Colsen to faith in Christ. Colson was an advisor to Richard Nixon and a member of the small group of individuals involved in the American scandal called Watergate. In his personal memoirs he recounts in detail the pressure to guard the conspiracy and how impossible they found it to cover up the lie. And this was only their careers – not their lives. People don’t die for lies.