Were the Gospels written by anonymous people who had no direct contact with early eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth?
.… Part of an on-going series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….
How Do You Answer Critics, Who Try to Use “Historical Criticism,” to Attack the Message of the Bible?
Dr. Bill Mounce, who has served on the translation committee for the New International Version of the Bible, and as the New Testament Chairperson for the English Standard Version of the Bible, has heard of claims like these before. Critical scholars, most notably represented by those like University of North Carolina professor, Bart Ehrman, argue that the writers of the four Gospels were written by sophisticated Greek-speakers, who lived in a very different world from Jesus’ original followers, made up of mostly illiterate persons, like Peter the fisherman, who primarily spoke Aramaic, and only very little Greek. We have no real idea who exactly wrote the Gospels, though they were probably composed as completed works as late as the 2nd century, and therefore, the historical information presented in them can not be entirely trusted as being accurate about Jesus.
As with any scholarly claim like this, there are elements of truth here. Yes, the four Gospels we have probably did not originally have the names of their authors embedded in the text. Titles like, “the Gospel according to Mark,” were added to the text by the late 2nd century. Yes, Jesus’ original hearers primarily spoke and understood Aramaic, while all four Gospels are written in elegant Greek.
But as Dr. Mounce writes in his Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, the idea that it was really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote their respective Gospels, was the unanimous consensus by the mid-2nd century. If the Gospels were truly anonymous, we would have heard of other possible author names being put forward as alternatives. But we do not see any contested argument regarding the names of authors in the historical record. In the ancient world, where we had no mass communication systems, made available by today’s technologies like the Internet, the traditional names of the Gospel writers consistently flourished throughout the geographically vast area of the Roman empire.
Contrast this with the disputes over who wrote the Book of Hebrews, the only New Testament book that lacks a particular claim to a particular author. Tertullian argued that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Other early church fathers suggest Clement of Rome, or Luke. Eusebius believed it was Paul. Some even say Priscilla wrote it. Origen concluded, “In truth only God knows.”
In the case of Mark’s Gospel, we do have good evidence that Mark was indeed the author. Though the writings have not directly survived, Eusebius tells us of the church father and writer Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, until about 130 CE, who was a disciple of John. Papias in these lost writings had written that Mark had become Peter’s interpreter. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria attests to Peter being in Rome, preaching in perhaps the 60s, of the first century. This would indicate that Mark probably wrote his Gospel, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, as derived from sermons that Peter gave in Rome, prior to Peter’s martyrdom.
When Doubts Arise: Having a Reliable Guide to Answer Informed Critics
Bill Mounce givens seasoned, evidence-grounded answers, like the one above, to the type of doubts and questions raised by critics of the Bible today, in Why I Trust the Bible. Dr. Mounce makes judicious use of the insights gained by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that enhance our understanding of the Scriptural text, rather than undermining it. Mounce’s audience is directed at ordinary Christian believers, who find themselves overwhelmed by the popular claims of skeptics, who are looking for reasoned explanations, that are readily accessible, and that do not descend into the overly technical. For those looking for more academic treatments of these topics, Mounce footnotes his references for those who want to dive deeper into these type of discussions.
I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mounce’s chapters on textual criticism, answering both the criticisms against New Testament itself popularly expressed by the famous atheist/agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, as well as the King James Only-movement on the other side of the debate. Those few chapters alone are worth the price of the book, written at a level that most people should be able to understand, that covers all of the important questions that are typically raised on this topic.
I can quibble with Dr. Mounce on a few points here and there throughout the book. For example, Dr. Mounce’s claim that the “had formed” for the animals’ creation in Genesis 2:19, as found in the ESV and NIV translations, does not carry a sense of temporal sequence, has been criticized by other scholars as a form of cheating when it comes to certain Bible translations (see page 257). But such complaints are minor, as set within the context of the whole of Dr. Mounce’s excellent work.
All in all, Why I Trust the Bible is probably one of the best resources available, that critique some of the more extreme conclusions made within the “historical criticism” movement, regarding the Bible. From questions about the canon of Scripture to the latest intellectual fad of “Jesus Mythicism,” Bill Mounce hits nearly every major topic that skeptics will bring up about the Bible. That being said, this may not be the right book to give to a knowledgeable non-believer, who devours every book that Bart Ehrman publishes. Dr. Mounce pretty much assumes that his audience are either Christians, or those who are genuinely seeking information about the Bible. There are lots of great books now about the existence of God, how science and faith relate to one another, and social justice issues concerning Christianity, but if I had to pick just one book that specifically looks at the trustworthiness of the Bible, Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible stands near the top of the list.
One Serious Gripe
If I had one serious complaint to make about Why I Trust the Bible it would be that the book is too short. Why I Trust the Bible could have explored certain issues at a greater length and depth, but the author chose not to. Dr. Mounce’s book clocks in at around 280 pages, whereas British Anglican liberal scholar John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, ( reviewed earlier in this blog post series on Veracity ), and endorsed by Bart Ehrman, clocks in at a hefty and whopping 635 pages. Both books are written for a popular audience, and easily digestible. Both books address overlapping material. Both Dr. Mounce and Dr. Barton are world-class scholars. But in spite of the length of Barton’s A History of the Bible, that might easily scare off some readers, Barton’s book outsells Dr. Mounce’s shorter Why I Trust the Bible, and most likely, will continue to outsell it.
I wonder if the topic of “historical criticism” of the Bible is avoided by church-going believers, because they are afraid with what they might find there. Thankfully, Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible does not exploit such fears, as it actually does the exact opposite. But perhaps the popularity of John Barton’s A History of the Bible exploits the growing skeptical reading audience’s desire for more material to challenge historic, orthodox Christianity.
While conservative evangelical book publishing has continued to improve tremendously over the past few decades, substantial volumes geared towards the general public have languished when compared to similar texts produced by progressive Christian and non-believing scholars. Back when I was in seminary in the 1990s, I remember being mesmerized by books written by the progressive Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, while being frustrated by the lack of alternative volumes written by otherwise equally competent conservative evangelical scholars, on similar topics, altogether absent from those Barnes and Noble bookshelves. Elaine Pagels was introducing me to a whole new world of “historical criticism,” but the evangelical churches I knew of in those days, addressed such topics with crickets!!
Is this the fault of evangelical book publishers, or the book reading market that tends to shy away from lengthy books of this type? I do not know that answer here. But what I do know is that we need more substantial books, along the lines of Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, that help to counter a growing skepticism in an increasingly secularized world.
In closing out this book review, I am leaving a whole list of teasers that might inspire you to go out and buy the book. Thankfully, Dr. Mounce has released a set of short videos, most of them clocking in at well under 5-minutes, that give you a summary of each chapter, plus a few extra videos that dive a little deeper into more complex topics. Here is the link to the entire YouTube playlist, but right below is the first video in the list, and I have hyperlinked to the other videos in the playlist, just below that. This is great stuff for your own personal discipleship journey, and might even be useful in a small group setting. Enjoy!!
Chapter 1: Did Jesus really exist? Who was the Jesus of history?
Chapter 2: Who wrote the Gospels?
Chapter 3: Are there really contradictions in the Bible?
Chapter 4: What about “discrepancies” in the Bible that really, really look like contradictions?
Chapter 5: Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?
Chapter 6: When was the New Testament canon closed? What was the role of the church?
Chapter 7: Are the original Greek texts for the New Testament hopelessly corrupt?
Chapter 8: How were the ancient New Testament manuscripts copied down through the generations?
Chapter 9: How does Dr. Bill Mounce interact with the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman?
Chapter 10: There are so many Bible translations! Which ones can you trust?
Chapter 11: What are different philosophies behind Bible translations?
Chapter 12: Can I trust the character of God given to us in the Old Testament?
Chapter 13: Can we trust the historicity of the Old Testament?
Conclusion: Why does Dr. Mounce trust the Bible, and why should I?
Does the Bible adequately show that Jesus really existed?
How accurate are the Gospels, if they were written down at least 20-25 years after Jesus lived on earth?
How good were the memories of the Gospel writers?
A tough apparent contradiction: Staff, or no staff?
Staff, or no staff? A shorter summary.
How many times did Peter deny Jesus?
Does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew contradict the genealogy in Luke?