Tuesday 10 April 2012

An unreliable assessment of the reliability of the Gospels

In Craig L. Blomberg's "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels" — chapter 46 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God — one can almost sense the rose-tinted spectacles through which the author apparently reads his Bible, carries out his research and writes this essay on how he really, really wants the Gospels to be true, and how everything discovered about them confirms that they are indeed true, or are probably true, or more likely true than false, and how any evidence that suggests the Gospels are "unreliable" cannot itself be relied on because it has come up with the wrong answer.
Can the major contours of the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels be trusted?  Many critics would argue not.  The Jesus Seminar became the best-known collection of such critics during the 1990s as they alleged that only 18 percent of the sayings ascribed to Jesus and 16 percent of his deeds as found in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, bore any close relationship to what he actually said and did.  At the same time, a much more representative cross-section of scholars from about 1980 to the present has inaugurated what has come to be called the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which a greater optimism is emerging about how much we can know, from the Gospels, read in light of other historical cultural developments of the day.
I can't help wondering what this "much more representative cross-section of scholars" is representative of. Most likely it's representative of scholars who believe the Gospels are reliable. The fact that Blomberg states that "a greater optimism is emerging" shows that he's not assessing the evidence from a neutral standpoint. I accept that he has a view on the matter, but his phraseology here indicates he's in the grip of confirmation bias.

He goes on to reiterate a claim that has appeared previously in Evidence for God — that the sheer number of copies of manuscripts counts towards their accuracy, which simply (and obviously) isn't the case. If I have an unreliable document and photocopy it a hundred or even a thousand times, the reliability of that document remains unchanged.

Blomberg also mentions archeological evidence, but this was dealt with in the previous chapter and is similarly unconvincing — or irrelevant — as far as the supernatural claims of the Gospels are concerned. He then discusses the differences between the Gospel accounts, attempting to have his cake and eat it. Where they agree, the Gospels demonstrate their reliability. Where they disagree, that's entirely what he would expect, given their mode of transmission. On the one hand we have variations due to the vagaries of the oral tradition, on the other we have remarkable veracity due to the reliability of the oral tradition.
But first-century Judaism was an oral culture, steeped in the educational practice of memorization.  Some rabbis had the entire Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) committed to memory.  Memorizing and preserving intact the amount of information contained in one Gospel would not have been hard for someone raised in this kind of culture who valued the memories of Jesus' life and teaching as sacred.
I dare say a scholar or rabbi could have done this, as I'm sure could Derren Brown today. But the people who are alleged to have performed this feat of recollection were not known to be rabbis or scholars. Matthew, we are told, was a tax-collector, or maybe a publican, Mark was possibly Jesus's half brother. John was a fisherman, and Luke may have been a "compendium" character used for narrative effect and who never actually existed. Not that we even know that the Gospels were authored by the men whose by-lines they bear. Given what little we do know of these characters, therefore, it's stretching a point to suggest that the reliability of the Gospels can be founded on feats of memory the authors were unlikely to be able to perform.

Taking all the above into account, it would appear that the historical reliability of the Bible can be reliably assessed as "not reliable".