If the Bible story were true, it would be consistent. It wouldn’t change with time. God’s personality wouldn’t change, God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t change, and the details of the Jesus story wouldn’t change. But the New Testament books themselves document the evolution of the Jesus story. Sort them chronologically to see.
What did Paul know?
Paul’s epistles precede Mark, the earliest gospel, by almost 20 years. The only miracle that Paul mentions is the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4). Were the miracle stories so well known within his different churches that he didn’t need to mention them? It doesn’t look like it.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22–3).
The Jews demand signs? Then give them one. Paul had loads of Jesus miracles to pick from. But wait a minute—if the Jesus story is a stumbling block to miracle-seeking Jews, then Paul must not know of any miracles.
Evolution of the story
Miracles come later, with the gospels. Looking at them chronologically, notice how the divinity of Jesus evolves. He becomes divine with the baptism in Mark; then in Matthew and Luke, he’s divine at birth; and in John, he’s divine since the beginning of time.
The four gospels were snapshots of the Jesus story as told in four different communities at four different times. The synoptic (“looking in the same direction”) gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share much source material, and they have much overlap. Nevertheless, 35% of Luke comes uniquely from its community (such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son), and 20% of Matthew is unique (such as Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt after his birth and the zombies that walked after Jesus’s death). And John is quite different from these three, having Gnostic and (arguably) Marcionite elements, reminders of important early versions of Christianity that are now gone.
This synoptic similarity undercuts the argument that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. If the authors of Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses, why would they copy so heavily from Mark? The authorship question (that Mark really wrote Mark, etc.) that grounds the claims that the gospels record eyewitness history is another tenuous element of the evolving story, as I’ve written before.
The gospels don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses (with the exception of a vague reference in John 21:24, in a chapter that appears to have been added by a later author). And even if they had, would that make a difference? Would tacking on “I Bartholomew was a witness to all that follows” to a gospel story make it more believable?
Would it make the story of Merlin the wizard more believable?
Eyewitness claims in noncanonical gospels
Consider some of the noncanonical (that is, rejected) gospels that include attributions. “I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea” is from the Gospel of Peter, and “I Thomas, an Israelite, write you this account” is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These gospels are rejected both by the church and by scholars despite these claims of eyewitness testimony. Why then imagine that the vague “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down; we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24) adds anything to John?
Arguing that the canonical gospels are eyewitness testimony is dangerous when apologists must want to reject other gospels that make that claim. This is one of several arguments that they clumsily try to be on both sides of.
There are dozens of noncanonical gospels. Christian churches reject these in part because they were written late. But if we agree that the probable second-century authorship for (say) the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and James is a problem because stories change with time, then why do the four canonical gospels get a pass? If the gospel of John, written 60 years after the resurrection, is reliable despite being a preposterous story, why reject Thomas, written just a few decades later?
The answer, it seems, is simply that Thomas doesn’t fit the mold of the flavor of Christianity that happened to win. History, even the imagined history of religion, is written by the victors.
God made everything out of nothing,
but the nothingness shows through
— Paul Valery
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/27/12.)
Photo credit: cesar harada