Thursday, February 21, 2013

Can the Gospel Accounts be Trusted?

The fact that there are four written accounts of the ministry of Jesus has been both a helpful and perplexing thing to the church. On one hand, the nature of the collective accounts have caused some to question the validity (or at least the inerrancy) of the accounts. It is frustrating to the theologically conservative and vindicating to theologically liberal that the accounts seem to contradict at times. In our 21st century minds, it is difficult that the same account could be written in multiple different ways, but with different wording that sometimes seems to change the very emphasis of the passage. On the other hand, the variety is helpful to the church in many ways. History, news reports, and just simply understanding how a situation took place is always more clearly understood by a collection of reliable sources than from only one source. If an important event takes place, it is always valuable to hear the account from trustworthy eyewitnesses who have an intimate relation to the events and who have concern to record them accurately.
That there are variations in four Gospel accounts need not lead readers to dismay. I will attempt to illustrate why. Take, for instance, the tragic event of the 9/11 attacks on the world trade center. To better understand what took place in the event, it would be valuable to hear the story told from multiple eyewitnesses. These accounts would be even more valuable if they were coming from intelligent and reliable sources who, in some way, knew the event first-hand. For example, we would probably be particularly interested to hear the events told from the perspective mayor of New York City, the fire chief who led the men into the daring and dangerous rescue efforts, or an authority figure in the World Trade Center who survived the attack. These sources are worth listening to because they are all individuals who have demonstrated a noteworthy character and who were intimately involved in the outcome of the tragic event. We would expect that these three individuals would tell of the same scenarios in various ways, but that would not lead us to think that there accounts were false. They just shed different light onto the accounts, due to their unique perspectives and concerns.
Such is the case of the apostles. These men displayed, not only remarkable character and intelligence, but they were more intimately involved with the life of Jesus than any other individuals in their day. The authority claims of their accounts arguably hold more weight than any other documents in history. This means that their claims should face more scrutiny than any other historical accounts. These writings have indeed faced immeasurable scrutiny (especially in more modern scholarship) and have demonstrated more reliability than any other historical account known to humanity. There are vastly more careful transcriptions of Scripture than any other of the world’s most cherished documents. They were written and circulated in a timeframe when eyewitnesses of the accounts were still alive. They were validated by the strong historical likelihood of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would argue that the level of skepticism that would require one to discard the claims of Scripture would lead one into an unmaintainable historical subjectivism that could give us no more historical assurance than the epistemological assurance that postmodern thought often gives us (very little).