CHAPTER 7—You Can’t Take The Bible Literally

Written by gregdenham on March 11th, 2010

CHAPTER SEVEN —You Can’t Take The Bible Literally

It is often asserted that the New Testament gospels were written so many years after the events happened that the writers’ accounts of Jesus’ life can’t be trusted—that they are highly embellished if not wholly imagined. Many believe that the canonical gospels were only four out of scores of other texts and that they were written to support the church hierarchy’s power while the rest (including the so-called “Gnostic gospels”) were suppressed.

In his landmark book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham marshals much historical evidence to demonstrate that at the time the gospels were written there were still numerous well-known living eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching and life events. They had committed them to memory and they remained active in the public life of the churches throughout their lifetimes, serving as ongoing sources and guarantors of the truth of those accounts. Bauckham uses evidence within the gospels themselves to show that the gospel writers named their eyewitness sources within the text to assure readers of their accounts’ authenticity.

Mark, for example, says that the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). There is no reason for the author to include such names unless the readers know or could have access to them. Mark is saying, “Alexander and Rufus vouch for the truth of what I am telling you, if you want to ask them.” Paul also appeals to readers to check with living eyewitnesses if they want to establish the truth of what he is saying about the events of Jesus’ life (1 Corinthians 15:1-6). Paul refers to a body of five hundred eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ at once. You can’t write that in a document designed for public reading unless there really were surviving witnesses whose testimony agreed and who could confirm what the author said. 

 All this decisively refutes the idea that the gospels were anonymous, collective, evolving oral traditions. Instead they were oral histories taken down from the mouths of the living eyewitnesses who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus in great detail.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, however, were recognized as authoritative eyewitness accounts almost immediately, and so we have Irenaeus of Lyons in 160 A.D. declaring that there were four, and only four gospels. The widespread idea, promoted by The Da Vinci Code, that the Emperor Constantine determined the New Testament canon, casting aside the earlier and supposedly more authentic Gnostic gospels, simply is not true.

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