A favorite argument against the truth of the Bible among Atheists and Muslims alike is the claim that the Bible has become corrupted over time. Those educated enough to recognize that, due to the multiple and early attestation in the manuscript tradition, this corruption could not have happened as a result of the transmission of the text, instead turn their attention to the time period between the events (i.e. Jesus’ life) and the earliest recording of them.
The claim here is that since (supposedly) so much time elapsed between the events of Jesus’ life and the first recording of them, the story had no doubt become corrupted and filled with legendary embellishment.
Since the most learned scholar who makes this argument is, no doubt, Bishop John Shelby Spong, I’ll allow him to make his case:
Let me peel back the explanations of our religious past without destroying the experience that they were trying to explain and ask what it was that that primary experience consisted of. Why did people see in Jesus someone around whom they could build this incredible theological system, to see him as the savior sent from God to rescue the fallen creation? There had to be something about his life that caused them to think it was an appropriate way to explain his power. So what was it?
Was it the fact that he was thought to be the worker of miracles? Well that could hardly be the case. For we can find absolutely no evidence in any Christian source that miracles were ever associated with the memory of Jesus until the eighth decade of the first century.
Did they build this kind of mythology around Jesus because he was said to have had a miraculous birth? Well that could hardly be the answer. Because once again, stories of his super-natural birth did not arrive in the Christian Tradition until the ninth decade of the first century. That’s sixty or so years after the life of Jesus had come to an end.
Was it that somehow they believed that Jesus had risen physically from the dead? That he had walked out of his tomb alive? Well that could hardly be the reason either. Because if you know anything about the origins of the Gospels and the Biblical Tradition, you know that interpreting the resurrection as bodily resuscitation back into the physical life of this world is not present in Paul, it’s not present in Mark, it might be hinted at in Matthew, but it only becomes virulent in Luke and in John; ninth and tenth decade pieces finally transformed whatever Easter was into physical resuscitation of a deceased body on the third day.
The above quote is taken from Bishop Spong’s lecture at Chautauqua entitled Re-Casting the Christ Story. Here, Bishop Spong claims that because of the length of time between Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels, we are not justified in believing that Jesus’ miracles, his virgin birth, or his resurrection were actual historical events.
It is my claim that the good Bishop’s conclusions are rooted in circular logic. Take the first claim for example. Spong says that there is no record of Jesus’ miracles until the eighth decade, which was Mark’s Gospel. What makes him think that Mark’s Gospel was written in the eighth decade? The answer is simple. Because apparently Mark knew about the destruction of the temple which he has Jesus predict in chapter 13. Since Jesus didn’t perform any miracles, according to Spong, then this prediction had to have been an anachronism. This means that Mark’s Gospel would have to have been written after AD 70 as he says in his debate with William Lane Craig, and therefore too late to be of much historical use.
But clearly this is circular logic. Since to accurately predict the future would certainly be a miracle, Spong rules this possibility out a priori and dates Mark after 70 so that he can say that Jesus didn’t actually make this prediction. What’s the evidence that Jesus didn’t perform miracles? A late date for Mark. What is the evidence for a late date of Mark? Jesus
didn’t perform miracles.
The same can be said for Spong’s claim that the virgin birth is also not historical. Since he dates Luke and Matthew in the ninth decade, he undercuts that validity of that claim as well. But here I find it interesting that John’s Gospel, which Spong believes is not only more removed from the events than Luke or Matthew are but also contains much more legendary embellishment, also does not contain the virgin birth. One would think that if John were just telling legendary stories then he would have included this “legend” as well.
I also find it interesting that Spong simply ignores the evidence for the early date of Luke/Acts in favor of the supposed evidence for the late date of Mark. Spong has complained that “the people who want to make sure that literal Biblical content is believed always opt for the earlier and earlier dating processes, which I don’t believe can be substantiated.”
But Spong does nothing himself to substantiate his claim that “the Gospels were written sometime between forty and sixty years after the earthly life of Jesus had come to an end.”
There are quite a few peculiar things in the book of Acts that cry out for an explanation. I personally have not yet heard an adequate explanation for any of these other than the hypothesis that the book of Acts was written before certain events in history occurred, therefore placing the date of the book’s composition somewhere in the early 60s. Here are just a few:
- Luke has Jesus predicting the temple’s destruction in Luke 21:6 but doesn’t show that the prediction came true in the book of Acts. Had Luke have known about the temple’s destruction, he certainly would have included it.
- Luke describes three separate occasions where Paul was told that he must stand trial before Ceasar, one of which comes from an Angel of the Lord (Acts 25:12, 26:32, 27:24) and yet the book does not include the trial. If the trial already happened before the book was finished, it would have been included.
- Luke mentions martyrs in the book such as James and Stephen, but does not mention the martyrdom of the main characters, Peter and Paul. Since the book ends with Paul’s house arrest, rather than his execution, this suggests that the book was finished before his execution.
- Luke begins the book of Acts with an epic event namely the accession of Jesus, and yet the book peters out with a mention of Paul’s house arrest. This suggests that Luke simply stopped writing because his story had finally caught up to present time.
- Luke writes in the first person when describing Paul’s second and third missionary journeys, implying that he was actually there. This means that the book had to have been written during the lifetime of a person old enough to join Paul on his travel journeys.
All of these peculiarities can be easily explained by the hypothesis that Luke wrote the book of Acts before the destruction of the temple and recorded history all the way up to the present. It is interesting that Luke’s first person language is present in the last chapter of the book. Since Luke’s Gospel is the prequel to Acts, and since Mark’s Gospel preceded Luke’s, this means that Mark’s Gospel was composed sometime in the 50s, about the same time that Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans. Additional evidence for this early dating includes the fact that Mark presupposes that his readers recognize the names Alexander and Rufus (see Mark 15:21). Paul asks the church in Rome to greet Rufus in his epistle to the Romans (see Romans 16:13) suggesting that Rufus was a member of the church in Rome during the time that Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s epistle to the Romans were written.
This early date for Luke/Acts and Mark’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to Bishop Spong’s assertion that the story of Jesus lived in oral tradition for forty to seventy years before it was finally written down. So which will you believe? That Jesus didn’t predict the temple’s destruction? Or that there is adequate evidence to believe that Acts was written early. I believe that anyone who accepts the former while sneering at the latter does so solely on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions rather than an objective assessment of the evidence.