Friday, April 17, 2009

The Continuing Debate on the Historicity of the Gospels: “Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels”, by David Alan Black

Since I have been reading some of the latest literature on the historicity of the Gospels I thought I would ask my good friend, Bob Krupp, if he would weigh in on the controversy. I have known Bob as a Seminary professor and I turned to him as an expert in the field of the early church Fathers. I have been reading so much criticism of the Fathers as a source for the historicity of the Gospels, that I requested of Bob to write a book defending them. Bob wrote back to me and said that the book he would have written has already been written and of course he advised that I should read the book. Coming from a man of Bob’s caliber I immediately Amazoned the book and read it the day it arrived. Here are my thoughts on, “Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels”.

As I began reading the book I understood Bob’s high regard for Black’s work. Black’s theory of the reliability of the Gospels depends entirely on the explanation of the early Church Fathers, such as: Papias of Hierapolis (60-130), Justin (100-165), Irenaeus (130-200), Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Tertullian (160-225), Origen (185-254), Eusebius (260-340), and others. Black lists all the fathers and their statements about the gospels in order to display the weight of Patristic evidence. These Fathers and others of the Ancient Church not only attest to the authority and reliability of the Four Gospels, but provide the historical process of their transmission. But, Black is not promoting his own theory; rather he is seeking to document in writing the theory presented by his colleague and friend, Bernard Orchard of The Gospel Research Institute in London. His theory is called, “The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis”, which according to these men was the ancient Church’s view of the Gospels. Thus, they simply see themselves as recovering what the Church Fathers taught. The title of the Hypothesis is based on the language of Ireneus, which tells you something about Orchard’s desire to stay close to the early fathers as “The” authorities on the Gospels.

The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis states that Matthew wrote the first gospel for the original church in Jerusalem, Luke was later commissioned by Paul to support his missionary efforts among the Gentiles, Mark was then written as a dictation of Peter’s lectures given to a Roman audience for the purpose of substantiating Matthew and Luke, and then last John was written to fill in missing information in the previous three Gospels and add critical theological features of Jesus. This is a very different scenario than what is painted by Ehrman and his Historical Critical approach to the Gospels. Ehrman and the critical scholars have adopted the 18th century Enlightenment theory that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke were written, but depended on Mark and a now lost source known as “Q”. “Q” would be the source information not contained in Mark. This theory is often called the, “Markan Priority”. Orchard and Black offer another explanation for the formation of Mark, which follows the accounts given by Clement of Alexandria. Mark is seen as a “bridge” gospel between Matthew and Luke. Clement says that Peter gave a series of lectures to a Roman audience which was then written down at the request of the Romans who were in attendance. Peter's assistant, Mark, wrote down the lectures, which became the Gospel of Mark. Orchard and Black have concluded that Peter used the scrolls of Matthew and Luke for his lecture material (to support Matthew and Luke as authentic gospels), but also including his own eyewitness experience (material include in Mark, but not Matthew and Luke). To Orchard and Black, this makes more sense than hypothesizing about a mysterious “Q” document that filled in the blanks between Mark and the other Gospels. Besides, with the historical documents provided by the Fathers, Black has the advantage over the Historical Critical approach by the fact that there has never been another source for the Gospels discovered, nor has another source been referred to anywhere in the history of the early church.

The key to accepting the Four-Fold Gospel Hypothesis is, of course, the acceptance of the church fathers as an accurate source of information about the historicity of the Gospels. So, Black spends more than 10% of the book cogently defending the Fathers as reliable sources of information. One of the most ironic facts Black uses to support the reliabililty of the Fathers is the current scholarship on Greek and Roman ancient history. These scholars, unlike the Historical Critical scholars of the Gospels, see the Church Fathers as completely reliable. Also, one of the interesting charges that Ehrman levels against the Fathers in his book, “Jesus Interrupted” is that the Gospels were anonymously written and only later was the authorship ascribed to the Gospels. This was done in order to give them apostolic authority to ward off other heretical writings. Black agrees that it wasn’t until the debates over heresy began in the middle of the second century that we find written attestation by the fathers that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the authors, but he argues that apostolic authorship was never an issue. Authorship wasn’t officially affirmed in writing until the heresy debates began.

From a literary perspective, the book’s 90 pages are very readable and easily read in one evening. It is written as a summary of the Four-Fold Gospel Hypothesis and is not written for the scholar. So, in this sense it is a very good comparison read with Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted”, which is also not a scholarly presentation. One difference, however, is that Ehrman is broader in his scope and seeks to deal with a lot of other controversies beside the transmission of the Gospels. For instance, Black does not deal with any of the conflicts between the gospels, where Ehrman does. Black’s book will keep you focused on one issue, the reliable transmission of the Gospels. You'll have to get the conflicts answered in another book.

As I was reading Ehrman’s, “Jesus Interrupted” I felt strongly that this was a dangerous book for an uninformed reader. Ehrman presents his “Historical Critical” case that the Gospels are largely legendary without any question or debate. In fact, Ehrman even told the story in his book that when he lectures in churches about his Historical Critical Gospel theory people are often shaken in their faith and wonder why they have never heard of this view of the Gospels before. Well, he never suggests that his view is controversial and unorthodox! He simply asserts that the Historical Critical approach, that led him to distrust the Gospels, is unquestionable fact and accepted by the Biblical scholarship at large. It is very intimidating. However, when you read authors such as Bauckham and Black you find a very different and compelling approach in support of the historicity of the Gospels. This book read in conjunction with Bauckham’s, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” provides a very persuasive argument that the Gospels are real history. I like being fair and the stakes for truth are high, so I would recommend reading Ehrman and Black "before" making any conclusions.

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