Can We Trust the New Testament?/Program 2

By: Lee Strobel; ©2007
Are there really other gospels that offer legitimate information about Jesus?



Announcer: For 13 years Lee Strobel was the legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and an outspoken atheist. His wife’s conversion sent him on a two year investigation to prove Christianity was false. But the evidence led him to become a Christian instead. He wrote about the evidence he discovered in his bestselling book The Case for Christ.

But recently, new explanations have arisen claiming to refute Jesus’ resurrection. Lee went back to investigate the evidence for these new theories and today you will hear what he discovered. Join us for this special edition of The John Ankerberg Show.

Ankerberg: You are going to love today’s program. My guest is Lee Strobel. He is the award-winning author of great books, The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for the Real Jesus, The Case for the Creator. These books, folks, are across the world and they came about as a result of Lee’s own search. He was the legal editor at the Chicago Tribune for 13 years, and he was a skeptic, he was an atheist. But as he investigated the evidence over two years of time he was persuaded that Jesus actually did rise from the dead; that he actually did claim to be God. He put that into the book The Case for Christ. And folks have gravitated toward these books like mad, and he is our guest today.
But today we are going to look at the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the claims of Christ from another angle. You know that today we have got a lot of popular books that are saying there are new ancient books that have been discovered that go right back to the time of Jesus and the apostles, supposedly, and they are uncovering a radical new view of Jesus. In other words, it is an alternative view that was circulating at the same time. So they are saying, look, you can choose this one versus the other one. And talk a little bit about what you found and how this hit you in terms of you realized you had to do more research.
Strobel: Yeah. I mean, as I began to read more and more about scholars who were claiming that these other gospels, these alternative gospels, are equally legitimate to the four gospels we have in the Bible, and yet they present a far different picture of Jesus. Well, I had to check that out and find out whether that was true. When the Jesus Seminar, these radical left wing scholars, produced a book called The Five Gospels, they included Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas. Hello! I mean, you say that that is equal to these other gospels? Well, that is a big claim, so I had to find out, is there any historical evidence to back this thing up?
Ankerberg: Yeah. I like the quote that you put at the top of the book, in this chapter of the book. Stephen L. Davies, who is a religion professor who usually writes in terms of the Gnostic gospels and so on, he said, “For 1900 years or so the canonical texts of the New Testament were the sole sources of historically reliable knowledge concerning Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s true. But then he said, “in 1945 this circumstance changed.” What changed?
Andrew Sullivan, another quote you have got in your book, “There is a very important historical point here, which is that in the last 30 years we have discovered real gospels, hundreds of them that are not the official gospels but they were part of the discussion in the early church.” And like you say, what they are saying is, look, we found at Nag Hammadi, we have got this Gnostic library. And some of these books, one of them being The Gospel of Thomas goes right back to the time of Jesus and the apostles. Like the Jesus Seminar is saying, this is at 50, this would be before some of the other gospels. And what they are doing is, by pushing the dates back on some of these other gospels that they are calling legitimate here, they are saying it presents a different view of Jesus. How different? Big time different, but they are saying that is an alternative view that is just as acceptable as your traditional and maybe should replace it. Okay. Let’s start. We have got some of the top ones that are used in a lot of the media presentations and are wall to wall in the book stores right now. And let’s start with The Gospel of Thomas. Alright, tell me the background of The Gospel of Thomas. Where did it come from? What is it? And why is this being touted so much?
Strobel: Well, it is interesting, John. Not long ago I was on the east coast and somebody gave me a bulletin from a local mainline church. And I opened it up and they had a responsive reading from The Gospel of Thomas. This is being used in churches. There is actually a Thomas church that is in existence in Canada. So we are seeing people gravitate toward this gospel. Why? Well, you know what, it has got a message that is contrary to that of the other gospels, and it is frankly a little more palatable for a lot of people. It says that Jesus is not the redeemer, He is a revealer. So it is a way we get salvation, if we get that, through self-discovery, through inner knowledge, through finding this divine spark inside of us just like it is inside of everybody, and this self-revelation and so forth. And you know, this is more palatable to a lot of people than the fact that I have to confess that I am a sinner and I need forgiveness and grace from Jesus Christ based on what He did on the cross. So it is a message that appeals to a lot of people, even though it is anti-women in some ways. At one point, The Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 sayings supposedly by Jesus, and one of them says that no woman is worthy of heaven. The only way that she can get in as a woman is to become like a male. So it is not particularly pro-woman, like a lot of people assume that these Gnostic gospels are.
The problem with The Gospel of Thomas and these other gospels, first of all, is when are they dated? Now it is intuitively obvious that the closer to the events you have something the more likely it is that they are going to be historically reliable. So when we look in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we see early dates for these books, that they are written close enough to the events that they can be trusted historically. And yet the efforts by historians to date Thomas and all of these other Gospels early as the gospels we have in the Bible just fall flat. And the truth is, they are dated most likely second half of the second century and later. Well, that is a long time after the fact. I mean, that is like saying that Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the Civil War, it is like me writing something today based on my perception of what kind of happened back then, it would be the same kind of time distance as it would have been for people in the second half of the second century writing about Jesus.
And besides which, these people had an agenda. They were Gnostics. They didn’t really care about the resurrection; they didn’t really care that much if Jesus rose from the dead. They cared about this secret knowledge that He was imparting only to those who were worthy, only to those who were smart enough to get it. It is a very,… this isn’t a message of grace. You know, the message of the Bible is God offers forgiveness and eternal life to anyone who comes to Him in repentance and faith. You know the message of Thomas is, are you smart enough? You got the knowledge? Do you have the key to unlock that divine spark? Well, maybe you can get in. That is a works based salvation in my view.
Ankerberg: When we compare the dates, I mean one of the smartest guys in the world is William F. Albright, Johns Hopkins University. And before he died he wrote that every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew sometime between the 40s and the 80s of the first century, and probably about 50-75, okay? Well, Jesus died at 30, okay? That means that within 20-35 years these books that we have now were on the newsstands around Jerusalem, alright? People could read them. And those people that read them were both pro and con, people that loved Jesus and people that hated Jesus. The ones that loved Jesus would look at these documents to make sure that it was absolutely perfect, this is what they remembered. And the guys that hated Jesus, they would have done the same thing, because they wanted to prove that these guys were wrong.
Strobel: That’s right. I mean, you can look at the book of Acts and you can say the book of Acts ends with Paul being under house arrest. What happens to Paul? We don’t know. Why? Well, probably because it was written before something happened to Paul. Well, Paul was put to death in 64 AD, James was put to death in about 62 AD. The Nero persecutions were in the mid 60s. The fall of Jerusalem was in 70. So these were monumental events. Had these happened before the book was written, they would have been in the book; but they are not. So it is logical to say the book of Acts was written before 60-62 AD. Well, we know that the book of Acts is the second part of a two-part book. Luke wrote them both. The first one he wrote earlier than that is a biography of Jesus called the Gospel of Luke.
Well, if you go into that, which affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, you can go back further, because most people say or a lot of scholars say that Matthew was written before Luke. So you step back further and we know that Matthew and Luke both used as a resource the writings of Mark, so that comes even earlier than that. And then, even if you go back to Mark, we have stuff before that: Paul’s letters, most of which were written way, way, way back at the beginning. And then you have creeds and hymns of the early church that are preserved in those writings that go back even earlier themselves. So we don’t have some huge time gap during which Jesus lived and died, a big gap of time and now legend grows up and we make Him into the Son of God – no! These writings, as you say, were circulating during the lifetimes of contemporaries that would have been all too willing and eager to point out their flaws if they were declaring something that was false or exaggerated.
Ankerberg: Alright. You interviewed Craig Evans, a great scholar at Acadia Divinity School in Canada. And the fact is, he said that Thomas should be dated between 175 to 200. That is 100 years down the pike from where the gospels are at. And some of the reasons, explain these, Thomas has too much New Testament in it.
Strobel: Yeah, exactly. One of the interesting things is that Thomas makes enough references and illusions and enough wording and so forth to show that whoever wrote it was familiar with most of the New Testament. Well, as evidence points out, you can’t find any document that knows that much of the New Testament that was written before at least 150 AD. Plus the fact, he uses later forms. In other words, Mark was not the smoothest writer in the world, the Gospel of Mark. He was not that great as a writer. And so Matthew and Luke would sort of polish his writing a little bit when they would produce their gospels. Well, it is those later polished versions that we find in Thomas, not the earlier versions. Plus we find allusions in Thomas to the Gospel of John which, scholars will tell us, is the last that was written among the four gospels we have in the Bible.
But, John, the most interesting stuff has come up in recent years: the connection between The Gospel of Thomas and the Syriac church. And here is the connection. The gospel began to spread. It didn’t get to Syria until 175 AD and it didn’t come in the forms of the four gospels we know. A guy named Tatian developed a new Gospel. What he did is he harmonized the four gospels and wrote one narrative. And in doing so he kind of changed the forms and kind of put it in his own language a bit. And he created a thing called the Diatessaron, the blending of the four gospels. That is what Syria got. Now, what is interesting is we see some of those forms from the Diatessaron in The Gospel of Thomas. Plus the only place in the world that called Thomas “Judas Thomas” was in Syria, and that is what this gospel is called.
What’s more, this is a fascinating discovery; Thomas is composed of 114 sayings. They look totally random, they look disconnected. And if you translate them in different languages they are still disconnected, until you translate them into Syriac. And when you do, what you see is about 500 catch words, in other words, words that are repeated to link together these 114 sayings to help people memorize them in order. Well, what does that tell you? That tells you this is something that is a product of the Syriac church that did not get the gospel until 175 AD. What’s more, they had their own take on things. They didn’t like commercialism, they didn’t like business people and so forth, and you see those biases represented in Thomas as well. So all of this adds up, John, I think to a conclusive case that Thomas was written between 175 and 200 AD, most likely closer to 200 than to 175, and therefore, historically speaking, it does not carry the weight at all that we see Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which are right back there, rooted in eyewitness testimony, right there in the first century.
Ankerberg: Yeah, so the Jesus of Thomas is 100 years down the pike and, the fact is, we can sideline that because this takes precedence over here.
Strobel: Not only that, John, but as you look at studies at which the rate that legend grew up in the ancient world and you see that the passage of two generations of time wasn’t even enough to wipe out a solid core of historical truth with legendary development. But you would expect with one or two generations of time and down the pike, you would see more legend develop. Well, that is what Thomas is. It is legendary stuff. They didn’t care much about the historical Jesus. They wanted to promote their own agenda of Gnosticism and self-knowledge and so forth, and so it would make sense that in the second century you would begin to see some wacky stuff. Sure enough, we see some wacky stuff. But it is later; it has no direct relationship with the historical Jesus.
Ankerberg: Alright, folks. If you think this stuff is wacky, wait until you hear the next three, and that is The Gospel of Peter and The Secret Gospel of Mark and The Gospel of Mary. Nice sounding names, but the fact is, wait until you hear what is said about them and in them, and how scholars are trying to say this ought to be put up there with the gospels themselves. You won’t want to miss this. Stay tuned.

Ankerberg: Alright, we are back. We are talking with Lee Strobel, a former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune for 13 years; a former skeptic, now turned Christian. And we are examining some of the attacks that modern scholarship is placing via the ancient documents they have found that supposedly uncover a new radical Jesus. We just got done talking about The Gospel of Thomas. But this one here, The Gospel of Peter, this is a real trip. Talk about this one.
Strobel: Yeah, that is a good way to describe it. You know, in the grave, in the coffin of a monk in the 9th century they found this document. And they think it may be The Gospel of Peter; they are not sure but…
Ankerberg: Where did you find this document?
Strobel: Hello! First of all, what are you doing in a monk’s coffin? I want to know that, but other than that they found it. And this is not a document that people have been looking for through the centuries and saying this will hold some key. In fact, church historians dating back centuries before that warned, they said, “By the way, there is this wacky thing floating around called The Gospel of Peter. Don’t believe it, it is wacked out.” So any way they look at this thing and they say, wow, look at this story. It talks about Pilate giving over Jesus to be crucified. It talks about some high priests who spend the night in the graveyard, and then out of the tomb comes these angels whose heads go to the clouds, and then Jesus, whose head goes beyond the clouds.
This is an NBA dream team, you know. You would pay a million bucks to get them to play basketball for you. And then there is a cross that comes behind them. So how this cross is moving, I don’t know, but the cross is behind them. And you hear a voice from God saying, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” Well, Jesus doesn’t answer, the cross answers, and says, “Yeah, I sure have,” you know. Well, wait a minute here. First of all, you talk about legendary stuff. This is wacky stuff that you would expect to see, legend that grows up a long time later. Number two, this cannot come from the first century. It cannot be an early document and therefore reliable, because it has priests spending the night in the cemetery. I interviewed Craig Evans, who is a universally respected scholar of ancient history, and he will tell you that there is no priest in the first century, because of rules about cleanliness and so forth, that would ever dream of spending the night in the cemetery. So this is wacky stuff.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Even so you got guys like John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar dating this book at 50 AD. I mean…
Strobel: I want to tell you, I think that’s irresponsible. It is just irresponsible; because the evidence is so much to the contrary. Whoever wrote this was so unfamiliar with first century Jewish culture that he would dare put in a ridiculous thing like priests spending a night in the cemetery. This is probably dated to the third or fourth century. It is irrelevant in terms of the real Jesus.
Ankerberg: Plus the document is anti-Semitic.
Strobel: It is. Exactly. Now, who is going to write a document in the first century that is anti-Semitic? These were Jews who were supporters of Jesus and writing. All the authors of the New Testament were baptized Jews, so why are they going to rely on something that is anti-Semitic in writing their own gospels? It is absurd. It does not add up.
Ankerberg: Another document is The Gospel of Mary.
Strobel: Yeah. This got popularized by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. There is not much to say about it. Virtually every scholar will tell you it is dated between 150 and 200 AD. You know, it is apparently an effort by some women to try to get around some restrictions that have been put down by the church. Trying to preclude some oddball and eccentric people, some of whom may have been women at the time who were wanting to preach in the church. And so they created this gospel in which Mary has a revelation from God, and Peter and Andrew say, “That’s not what Jesus said.” And so Mary starts crying – this is Mary Magdalene – she starts crying. And so Levi says to Peter and Andrew, he said, “Let her go preach this and do so without boundaries and restrictions.” It is just a way to try and get around church rules about wacked out people preaching and teaching in local churches. Nobody believes this has any relationship to the historical Jesus.
Ankerberg: But as wacky as that is, it doesn’t even come close to the next one, which is The Secret Gospel of Mark.
Strobel: When I say this is unbelievable, John, this is truly unbelievable. Morton Smith was a well-respected very liberal scholar at Columbia University. He says he discovers in a place in Jerusalem, or in the Middle East, he discovers a document from a book from the 17th century where somebody had copied a letter written by Clement of Alexandria. Now, Clement was a disciple of Peter. He was one of the early church fathers. He was a pretty hip guy in terms of what was going on. And in this letter that the monk copied in the 1600s was a couple of paragraphs from a secret gospel, The Secret Gospel of Mark, the one that only the initiated can see, the one that not just anybody gets to read. That is the regular gospel of Mark, this is The Secret Gospel of Mark. Well, what does it say? It says that Jesus healed the young man and then the young man, naked except for a towel around him, comes and he spends the night with Jesus. Well, the implications of this are clear. And you know, what wasn’t really known at the time was that Morton Smith himself was actually gay and had actually, you know, written other books that said Jesus had these secret initiation rites and so forth and raised these homo-erotic suggestions.
Well, what it turned out to be, and by the way Morton Smith writes a 548-page book for Harvard University Press talking about his great new discovery, and a popular book about it that Elaine Pagels, the well-known religious professor, writes the foreword to. Well, as it turns out, of course, the writings that he based all this on are gone. Nobody can find them. When he dies they find photographs of these that he has. Oh, great. Let’s look at them, let’s examine them. They had forensic experts examine them. What did they find? They are forgeries. They are a hoax. He actually, and they knew this by the way that they analyzed the writing, the way that he made certain Greek letters in a unique way that only he did, there is all kinds of evidence that indicate he made this thing up.
And the scary part about it is that you have very liberal scholars who see something like this and they jump at it uncritically and say, wow, here is something new. Wow, Jesus may have been gay. That is really provocative, that is really interesting. Let’s write about this, let’s talk about this. And they ignore the eyewitness based first century documents of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the rest of the New Testament and the Bible. They ignore that, and they start extolling the virtues of this particular thing, which turns out they get egg on their face, because it is absolutely a hoax. What an embarrassment to the scholarly community, those who were willing to suspend their critical judgment about this book, but see so critically, you know, critical when they look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for no good historical reason. I think it is just a black mark on these scholars.
Ankerberg: The most angry I have every seen Craig Evans was when I asked him about Michael Baigent’s book The Jesus Papers. Talk about, you interviewed him as well. Talk about what he said about The Jesus Papers.
Strobel: I mean, this is again, Michael Baigent writes this wacked out thing where he says in the remodeling of a foundation of a house in Jerusalem they found some Papyrus fragments, two of them. These were in Aramaic and they supposedly were written by Jesus while he was awaiting trial. And it says, “Oh, by the way, there is a little bit of misunderstanding here. I am not really saying I am the Son of God. We all kind of have the Spirit of God. You have the Spirit of God. I can have the Spirit of God.” So okay, Michael Baigent says, “These have been verified by two Israeli archaeologists. I went and I saw them for myself, and it is true.”
Well, wait a minute. Number one, no papyrus is going to exist for 2000 years in the foundation of a house in Jerusalem. Given the weather it would certainly disintegrate. Number two, oh, he can’t say who owns these things, oh, he didn’t photograph them, oh, he doesn’t read Aramaic, and neither does the person who supposedly owns them. So how does he know what it says? Oh, by the way, the two archaeologists who confirmed it, they both happen to be dead. When I was legal editor of the Chicago Tribune if I came into my editor and said, “Hey, I got a hot story,” and I tried to sell him that, I would have been fired. That would be grounds for dismissal. Are you that gullible, are you that stupid? Are you trying to sell us a bill of goods? I would have been out in the street in two minutes. This is just historical fantasyland. And Baigent, who has no historical background, writing these books and frankly a lot of people buying them and believing them. His book Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other stuff, I am telling you, this just re-writing history to fit pre-conceived notions of what people wish it had been like.
Ankerberg: Alright. Conclusion on all of these new books and new attacks trying to uncover a new radical Jesus. What did you conclude?
Strobel: I can tell you in one sentence. There are no new documents that have been discovered that have any historical legitimacy in terms of the real Jesus that have changed one iota our essential beliefs about who he is and what he did. Period.
Ankerberg: Folks, take that to the bank. And next week we are going to go one more step, and that is, did the church tamper with the text so that what we have today in the New Testament texts that have come down to us, do we have an altered text from what was originally written? Do we have a different Jesus than the one they wrote about? Do we have different doctrine than the one they actually put in the documents? Some of the scholars are saying, yeah, that happened. And we are going to show you that that didn’t if you join us next week.

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