Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?

August 11, 2015

In the world of mainline Protestant seminary education, we take for granted the following “facts”: Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most “historical.” Since the understanding of Jesus as God developed over time, Mark portrays Jesus as more human and less divine than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke, written later, use Mark as a source for their own gospels, while also relying on a source they have in common, called “Q.” Inconveniently, this source—again, a taken-for-granted fact for us victims of mainline Protestant education—has managed to vanish without a trace.

While Matthew and Luke have access to other sources, unique to their respective gospels, neither is interested in telling a straightforward history. Rather, each has an ideological agenda to suit their particular audience. They freely change the historical data and invent stories and sayings of Jesus to suit this ideology.

John, meanwhile, written much later than the other three, portrays Jesus as nearly a superhero. It is by far the least historical.

And of course, none of the gospels was written by its attributed author; none is based on apostolic sources.

As you can guess, I now reject all of these highly speculative articles of faith. I’m happy to grant that Mark is the earliest gospel, but the truth is, as N.T. Wright points out, we don’t know for sure when the gospels were written—besides which, they were likely based on oral traditions that long predated them. (But even the consensus of critical scholarship now grants that John’s gospel was written within the first century; this wasn’t the case 50 years ago.) Also, there’s nothing at stake in believing that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark as a source, except… If they merely “copied” Mark, as so many critical scholars believe, why did they copy Mark so poorly?

I’m not talking about alleged changes they make to suit their agendas; I’m talking about differences in minor details that serve no ideological purpose—for example, did the four friends lower the paralytic through a thatched roof or tiled roof? Most neutral observers would say, I think, that these differences in details would be evidence of historians working with some degree of independence, relying on different sources or eyewitnesses.

All that to say, you can hear all the biases and clichés of mainline critical scholarship on full display in a recent two-part debate (here and here) on the Unbelievable? podcast between the famously agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University.

McGrew’s wife, Lydia, herself a fierce apologist, has written lengthy responses to both debates on her personal blog. Earlier this year, however, she wrote this post debunking the “development” trajectory in the four gospels’ Passion narratives. Before offering her own evidence, she challenges her readers to pick up their Bibles and see for themselves if they discern this progression from “more human” to “more divine.” She concludes:

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as “making Jesus say” things he never said, portraying different “Jesuses” in a literary fashion, and “developing” Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus “develops” in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn’t so.

A mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. Love it!

It reminded me of a blog post that theologian Andrew Wilson wrote last year about another Unbelievable? debate, this time between two self-identified evangelicals, Peter Enns and David Instone-Brewer. Enns was defending a more critical approach to reading and interpreting the gospels. During the debate, Enns said the following:

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected … So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

Notice any problem with Enns’s statement? Wilson did.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here – though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake – is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

In other words, once you buy into the hypothesis that the gospel writers were ideologically driven, this hypothesis is unfalsifiable.

12 Responses to “Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Silly me. I thought that the authors of the four Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No one talks about THAT in seminary.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Seriously? It’s not foundational??

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’m serious! They teach what they believe are the “facts” and leave it to the student to sort out how or whether these facts fit into his or her faith tradition. It’s a very secular mindset.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        You are talking Candler, right?

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, but it could be any mainline Protestant seminary. Candler isn’t even the worst in Methodism (there’s still Claremont and Boston University), but it’s bad. It’s inflicting great spiritual harm on our prospective clergy. Most of them aren’t equipped, spiritually, to deal with it. As I said, this stuff is just taken for granted. There is no opposing view presented. There is no effort to uphold a high view of the authority of scripture.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I hasten to add, I wasn’t equipped either!

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Well, this explains a lot. I have been mystified by some of our young pastors coming out of Emory for the last few years. What else don’t I know? Can anyone view the syllabus(s)? for courses at Candler, or is that private?

      • brentwhite Says:

        It’s not private, as far as I know. Some may be online. But on several occasions, one Old Testament prof of mine, when putting forth some controversial theory, asked rhetorically, “Are you going to share this with your parishioners?” The implied answer, of course, was no.

  2. veritasvincit Says:

    The good news is that the “Methodist Magisterium” consisting of the “findings” of the “scholarly consensus” is losing hold, albeit slowly and begrudgingly. We’re blessed to have pastors like you, Brent, whose first love is Jesus and the truth about Him.

    Jim Lung

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