What aspects of the New Testament are true?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I’d like someone who read up on a lot of secular/critical scholar books and resources to answer this, please. What do most critical scholars believe when it comes to the Gospels? Do they believe that Jesus taught the things especially in the Gospels like the parables, laws and other things — but then deny his miracles? Do they think that the Gospels are generally a good source to look into Jesus Christ’s life even though they may not believe in the miracles? Does the same apply to the books of Paul? (Sources for books or links would be very appreciated.)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. I am honored that you have trusted us with your questions! However, you have asked too many specialized and specific questions to get answers in length and expertise that is typical of our responses. Hey... I doubt that even a PhD candidate in textual studies could answer this question! … and we don’t have people like this just lying around.

I’m a “regular person.” That’s the Mainsail brand. I see myself as a thinking person who is broadly conversant about life and its issues — but who is no bona fide expert in scholarly disciplines like textual criticism. But that’s the type of writer your question requires… I mean… look at what the mere introduction to your three-part question is asking — what do “most” critical scholars believe? Who could know that? — even among scholars.

That question assumes that I have surveyed the hundreds (thousands?) of volumes on textual criticism and have evaluated them to find a consensus. I’m not sure that even Bart Ehrman would be equal to this task! ... I mean... who would?

That being said, let me share two cases I find interesting that will touch on your question. If these do not satisfy, feel free to re-query… just do so with a question more tailored to our venue.

The first case is that of the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson loved the person of Jesus Christ. But Jefferson was an antisupernaturalist. He did not believe in God or miracles. But since most of what we know about Jesus comes from the Bible, he must’ve trusted the Bible as a historical source. So, here’s what he did.

Jefferson took scissors and cut out the parts of the Gospels involving Jesus that had no reference to God or miracles. He reassembled these into a work that is often called “The Jefferson Bible” ... but it is not a Bible at all. He never intended it to be. His title precisely describes its scope: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Now, Jefferson was no Bible scholar, but his labors demonstrate a broader tendency: people want to separate a historical Jesus from the spiritual Jesus. But when they do this, they run into a trilemma.

Jesus said of himself that he was the prophesied Son of Man — the Messiah — the Son of God... but he said these things in the Bible. So the first problem is that dodging those claims is simply unscholarly; they must be addressed. But here’s the problem in addressing them. Since Jesus claimed these for himself, if he was not all these things, then he was either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord… one of the three. We choose door number three... but people spend a lot of time implying that a door number four exists. It does not. Hell waits behind that door!

You see, there is no valid “historical Jesus” who did not make these claims. As such, representing him as a great teacher or a great moral person only… is a lie. He was all those things... but he was not only all those things... and scholars should know better than to misrepresent him like that. (Click here to see a more complete workup of the Jefferson Bible.)

Our second case is the aforementioned Bart Ehrman. Ehrman was raised as a Christian — and he attended no less a Christian institution than Wheaton College in Illinois! But somewhere on his way to his doctorate, he deconverted — that is, he says he is no longer a believer — and since that time he has made a fortune selling popular-level books based on his scholarly work.

Ehrman’s intentions are clear through the titles of his popular works. These six have reached the New York Times bestseller list: Misquoting JesusJesus, Interrupted, God's Problem, Forged, How Jesus Became God, and The Triumph of Christianity. I think you can see what’s up with him.

I bring up Ehrman because he is a legitimate scholar... a tenured professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He knew Jesus culturally... but kicked him to the curb professionally. This speaks to parts A and B of your question. Ehrman is a world-class New Testament scholar who regards the New Testament as a valid history. Yet he repudiated the “faith” he inherited.

Now, I cannot look inside Ehrman’s heart. I do not know what his faith status truly was or is. If what seems to have happened actually happened, I suspect his faith was predominantly cultural. But he makes an interesting case... and an example of why your question would be extraordinarily difficult to answer. Textual critics are all over the map in their conclusions and personal experiences!

William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries has a few ideas on why Bart Ehrman left the faith. I have used these in an article, so if you are interested in reading more of what I think happened to Ehrman, click here.)

Before you go, you may want to survey Got Questions Ministries article on textual criticism. This article covers the whole topic — but only in 953 words! I bring up the word count to show that your initial request was beyond the scope of the typical online apologetics ministry. (Click here to read that article.)

Also, Josh McDowell has an approachable article on the process of textual criticism. He has some important insights for the layman. (Click here to read his article.) 

Please note that I cannot recommend any books on textual criticism for the same reason that I can’t answer your question as you asked it. The field is too broad — as an internet search will show you… and I have not studied textual criticism formally. But I applaud your curiosity, and I pray that you will find your answers.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20220404 How far can we trust the New Testament? ).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)