Editor’s Note: ‘This review was first published in in the April 2011 issue of Evangelicals Now and is used with permission. www.e-n.org.uk‘
THE JESUS ACCOUNTS (DVD) Fact or fiction By Bishop Nazir-Ali, Dr. Peter Head, Dr. Simon Gathercole Spear Publications. £10.00
These days Christians are accused of of arbitrarily choosing some books as ‘Scripture’ while rejecting others with different theology.
The average evangelical is unprepared for such onslaughts. Many pastors are ill-equipped to run seminars on the biblical text and canon, and, probably, few church members would bother to turn up. This problem is solved by three excellent DVDs.
The Jesus Accounts: Fact or Fiction, issued by the Firm Foundation Trust, featuring Bishop Nazir-Ali, a noted expert on Islam, as well as biblical scholars Dr. Peter Head and Dr. Simon Gathercole, is a 30-minute presentation explaining in layman’s language why the New Testament (NT) documents are wholly reliable. Head observes that we have 122 extant early NT portions, some of them being complete gospels, the film showing the Chester Beatty codex (dated c. 225), containing portions of all four Gospels, and the P52 portion of John 18, dated c. 125, i.e. only about 30 years after the Gospel was written. Furthermore, Head notes the widespread quotation of the NT in various early church writers. Nazir-Ali and Gathercole point to the credibility of the Gospel presentation in terms of cultural and geographical knowledge, etc.
Bible and church
Gathercole also appears in the next two DVDs, entitled Bible & Church, together with Drs. Peter Williams and Dirk Jongkind from Tyndale House, featuring their 2009 and 2010 presentations. In the 2009 DVD, Williams looks at the historical evidence for what the Gospels state. Muslims usually deny that Jesus was crucified, yet the pagan writer Tacitus, born c. 56, observes that Christ was executed under Pontius Pilate. Against claims that belief in the deity of Christ was a later innovation, Pliny, the Roman governor of Bythinia in 111, after interrogating both Christians and those who had apostatised from Christianity (in some cases, 20 years previously — i.e. in the first century), informed the Emperor that they sung ‘a song to Christ as to a god’. Hence, the NT historical accounts have external corroboration.
Jongkind refers to Muslim claims about corruption of the Bible, observing how Ehrman echoes these — that God did not protect the NT text from copyist errors. While acknowledging that the original manuscripts no longer exist, Jongkind notes that the evidence of early and ongoing copying in various places around the world testifies to the continuity of NT transmission. There was no central authority that could change the Gospel texts to something other than what they were.
He makes a devastating critique of Ehrman’s claims that ‘many’ scribes have altered certain texts by asking if it were not more likely that one did so and others simply copied his text? Jongkind also debunks Ehrman’s claim about orthodox scribes changing the text of Luke 2.33 (‘his father and mother’ altered to ‘Joseph and his mother’), by pointing out that no early manuscripts make the change in 2.27, 41 which refer to ‘His parents’, indicating that the change may not have been deliberate, and 2.48 (where ‘Your father and I’ becomes ‘we’), noting that the latter only occurs in a Syriac translation, not a Greek text!
Gathercole’s contribution shows why the canonical — as opposed to the apocryphal — Gospels are historically reliable. The dating of the latter is always later than the first century, in contrast to the eyewitness testimony of the former, written when many people who had experienced the historical events associated with Jesus were still alive, which also deterred false reporting. The literary dependence of pseudo-gospels on the canonical Gospels is obvious. Furthermore, their geographical and historical knowledge of ancient Palestine (e.g. Jewish customs and festivals) is limited; the pseudo-gospels of ‘Thomas’ and ‘Judas’ mention only two places — the world and Judaea.
In the 2010 DVD, Williams counters Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories that the church chose which texts would go into the canon, usually in the fourth century, when the church had political power, rejecting others which were possibly more ‘authentic’. In fact, the pseudo-gospels copied from the canonical Gospels. The four Gospels were recognised by Christians at a time when they were often persecuted, e.g. Iren¾us, martyr-bishop of Lyons (c. 180), who was a disciple of Polycarp, himself a disciple of the Apostle John. Around the same time in the East, Tatian produced a harmony of the four Gospels called the Diatesseron. Papias, writing at 135 at the latest, quotes Matthew, Mark and John (an Armenian text has him also mentioning Luke). Incidentally, this argument for continuity resembles the Islamic concept of Isnad, the chain of narration, with particular emphasis on the first three generations from the time of Muhammad onwards, so is a good example to use in discussions with Muslims.
Jongkind contrasts the extensive and more ancient manuscript evidence for the canonical gospels with the apocryphal gospels. The four canonical Gospels are extensively quoted by the early church. Jongkind answers Ehrman’s allegations that the text of the four Gospels is not secure and that the canonical ‘selection’ was arbitrary, noting how textual evidence for the apocryphal gospels is insecure. Further, the early fathers were not scared of the non-canonical gospels — they posed no real threat.
Hoaxes Gathercole continues this examination of the apocryphal gospels, namely those of Philip, Barnabas and The Secret Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Barnabas, frequently promoted by Muslims as the true gospel, is dated very late (14th century), being a mix of Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. In chapter 3.1, the pseudo-gospel commits the howler of having Pilate as governor of Judaea at the time of Jesus’s birth.
As for Secret Mark, with its implication of homo-erotic relations between Jesus and Lazarus, this is a modern hoax by its supposed discoverer, Morton Smith, in the 1950s. The text refers to ‘seven veils’, a phrase first used in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 book, and later featured in Rita Hayworth’s sensual dance in the 1953 film Salome.
These DVDs could be utilised by churches, youth groups and Christian Unions starting with a presentation of The Jesus Accounts on a Sunday evening, and then studying the other DVDs over the course of six weeks, a lecture at a time, in house-groups or the mid-week meeting. By the end of this, evangelicals — especially youth and students often in regular interaction with Muslims and Da Vinci Code fans — would be well-equipped to defend the historical reliability of Christianity.
There was a time when ordinary evangelicals were adequately catechised, which is unfortunately no longer the case, but there are special contemporary factors which demand that congregations engage in more detailed study of NT reliability. The scholars involved in these superlative DVDs are to be commended for placing their learning at the service of ordinary Christians, in accessible, layman’s language.
Dr. Anthony McRoy,
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