The Gospel Truth: How We Can Know What Christ Taught
By Gary Michuta.
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2023.
Hardcover, 176 pages, $24.95.
Reviewed by David Weinberger.
Unlike every other religion, Christianity stakes its entire claim to legitimacy on whether certain historical events actually occurred. For example, writing in the 50s AD Paul told the Corinthians that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then one’s faith is in vain. In other words, if Jesus’ bodily resurrection did not literally happen, then Christianity is false. This is quite a claim, and the fact that it can be subjected to evidential and rational scrutiny is not only unique among world religions, but it has invited truth seekers throughout the ages to assess for themselves: Is there good evidence for the resurrection or is Christianity simply a fraud?
Of course, how one sees the evidence generally depends on one’s prior belief about whether God exists and therefore whether miracles are possible. If the answer to those two questions is “no,” then one is unlikely to entertain the resurrection as a serious possibility, no matter how strong the evidence. As Augustine pointed out in the fourth century, “No one, indeed, believes anything, unless he previously knows it to be believable.” Simply put, one’s prior philosophical assumptions heavily influence whether one is open to the possibility of a miracle like the resurrection.
That is why, for the atheist, philosophy rather than revealed religion is typically a more fruitful place to begin. Once one has discovered through metaphysics that God is the fullness of existence itself, or the ground on which everything else depends for its existence, he can look at revelation claims from a fresh vantage point. If, for example, a perfectly good, all-powerful God can be shown philosophically to exist, then it would seem reasonable to suppose that he might try to communicate with his creation. And what more fitting way to do so than to enter creation and live among us? This, then, might open one to the possibility of Christianity.
But after one gets to this point, a separate but related question often arises: How can we know what Jesus really taught? That is, how can we know that Christianity today is the same Christianity that Christ taught 2,000 years ago? Are the gospels accurate? These are questions taken up in an important new book by theologian Gary Michuta in The Gospel Truth: How We Can Know What Christ Taught.
One may wonder, for example, whether the gospels are reliable given that they were written thirty to sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Consider, for instance, the (often hilarious) distortion of a message that happens in a game of telephone. Now consider how much worse it must be for the gospels. At least with a game of telephone, the message is passed on at basically the same moment in time. The gospel messages, however, circulated orally for decades in the Christian community before they were written, which allowed for all sorts of contortion and creative myth to develop, rendering the written gospels we have today untrustworthy. To see this point even more clearly, as one prominent critic has suggested, consider how many lines you can recall from Barack Obama’s 2008 inaugural speech. Could you recite the entire address verbatim? Likely not, and that was merely 15 years ago—how much worse, then, for the gospel writers trying to recall the words of Jesus decades after the fact!
This point deserves careful consideration. At first blush, and without understanding the wider historical context in which Jesus lived and taught, it sounds persuasive. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose the gospel accounts are indeed reliable. First, it is important for readers to understand that as far as ancient history goes, the gospels are uniquely early in how closely they were written to the historical events they recount. Indeed, most records from antiquity were written much later than the events they describe, often hundreds of years later, and this is true for major figures including kings, emperors, and military leaders. For example, the earliest known biography of Alexander the Great was written 400 years after he lived. Second, the literary culture in which Jesus lived was mainly an oral one. Writing was both expensive and time consuming, and relatively few people possessed the requisite skill to do it. Thus the written word was rare. Instead, Jewish culture, as Michuta explains, “was, like other cultures at the time, an oral culture that placed emphasis on memory and recall.” How? Through the rabbi-disciple relationship. As contemporary Jewish sources suggest, this was a well-developed practice in the first century AD. Rabbis or “teachers” instructed their students or “disciples” in repetition, imitation and “dispositional instruction,” or a program of questioning to reinforce understanding. All of these “aided in committing the instruction to memory and the disciples’ ability to share the instruction with their future students,” notes Michuta. Moreover, this process was treated with utmost seriousness. Even slight deviations in messaging were considered out of bounds.
After recounting this fascinating history, Michuta hones in on the gospels themselves and the techniques the gospel writers appear to have employed in order to convey accurately what they were taught, including repetition, rhyme and rhythm, parallelism, and other methods that work as memory aids. To introduce such methods, Michuta first asks the reader to consider why we tend to remember the lyrics of our favorite songs and nursery rhymes like “Mary had a little lamb…” verbatim, but struggle to remember things like anniversaries, birthdays, and inaugural addresses. Perhaps the most obvious reason is repetition: We have likely heard our favorite songs and childhood poems at least dozens of times. Second, however, is that they tend to have mnemonic devices that are formatted for accurate recall. That is why when someone hums our favorite tune, we can immediately recall the lyrics that go with it. Of course, these methods are hardly original with modernity. Indeed, they were exploited with extreme diligence in the first century, even apparently by the gospel writers themselves.
Michuta, for instance, describes how “the Gospels contain similar mnemonic devices, although many of them remain hidden under the Greek text.” In other words, when the Greek New Testament texts are translated into the Hebrew or Aramaic in which they were originally written, obvious mnemonic devices and wordplay appear. One example of this is the original Aramaic in which Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which he will build his Church. As Michuta explains, “The name ‘Peter’ and the word ‘rock’ are one word in Aramaic (képhá), so Jesus would have said ‘You are képhá and upon képhá I will build my Church.’” Simple devices like this would be helpful memory aids to accurately convey information, which begs an obvious question: If the gospel accounts are fabrications rather than honest recountings of events, “why compose a fiction that is peppered with memory devices?” asks Michuta. “Even more, why compose an account that is peppered with concealed memory devices? … [A] good explanation is that the gospels were using earlier pre-canonical material that utilized mnemonic devices to promote accurate recall.”
After documenting numerous instances of these devices throughout the gospels, Michuta gives other reasons to believe that the gospel accounts are reliable. For example, consider the abundance of publicly verifiable information the gospels contain. If the gospel writers were trying to concoct a hoax, it would be in their interest to provide as little verifiable detail as possible, lest they be exposed as frauds. But this is not what we see. The gospels, in fact, are so heavy on precise detail surrounding the healings and miraculous deeds of Jesus, including locations, names, descriptions of buildings, even the times of day in some cases, that they seem to be begging readers to verify the events for themselves. Here, in other words, is how Michuta puts it: “It is almost like a challenge or, better yet, a dare to the reader: ‘Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourselves. Here is what happened. Ask them.’”
In short, if the gospels were hoaxes, we would not expect such an explicitly detailed public record. Surely the many local Jewish or Pagan detractors of the Christian movement could have visited the nearby sites of Jesus’ miracles and checked with eyewitnesses whether the gospel reports were accurate. After all, not only is it likely that eyewitnesses survived well into the first century (Paul writing in the 50s AD, for example, says that most of the 500 eyewitnesses to a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus were still alive), but according to an early second-century Christian apologist named Quadratus, some eyewitnesses were still around at that time. Certainly they would have been able to refute the gospel accounts if the writers had simply concocted fabrications, which would have extinguished the Christian movement in its tracks, as happened to the movements of other contemporary messianic pretenders (such as those of Simon bar Kokhba and Apollonius of Tyana).
Furthermore, Michuta also observes that there is no record of the early opponents of Christianity denying the gospel reports of miracles. Instead we find opponents obfuscating the report “by attempting to explain it away or put a malevolent spin on the person, place, thing, or event,” stresses Michuta. Crucially, however, such obfuscation “points to the fact that something really happened.” [emphasis added]
More than that, the book offers other important lines of evidence for gospel reliability, as well as a look at how early Christians discerned the meaning of what Jesus taught. This is no small matter. Indeed Christians today differ on many crucial teachings. How do we know which ones are correct? More fundamentally, how do we know whether we can even trust the gospels? Or what Jesus really taught? After reading The Gospel Truth, only you, of course, can decide.
David Weinberger formerly worked at a public policy institution. He can be found on Twitter @DWeinberger03.
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