A Pop Quiz for Christians, Number 6

What devout scholars know vs. what devout churchgoers believe

A long time ago, devout scholars thought they could strengthen the faith by studying every chapter and verse of the gospels. Thus an industry was born: Christian academia. Many, many thousands of books, commentaries, articles, doctoral dissertations have been written. Not a single word of the gospels has missed their careful attention. But the unintended, lamentable result was that certainties about Jesus were damaged and diminished. It turns out that the gospels fail to meet minimal standards to qualify as history. Most of the devout scholars have been able to finesse this problem: they invent theologies to be able to hold on to Jesus as Lord and Savior.



Nonetheless, all of the research and analysis that damages/diminishes/undermines the credibility of the gospels is there for all to see. In fact, many secular scholars have joined this endeavor, and have helped bring the deficiencies of the gospels to light. The books of Bart Ehrman—some of which have made the best seller lists—come to mind. 


But there is a major audience that has not, for the most part, been touched by this massive field of research, namely: most of the folks in the pews. And, for the most part, priests and preachers, who earn their livings promoting/strengthening/upholding the faith, are not about to encourage careful, critical, skeptical analysis of the gospels. Hence churchgoers remain unaware of the scholarship that undermines the credibility of these documents. Nor are they encouraged to study Christian origins in depth—for that itself also exposes alarming information about the context in which Christianity arose.


So here in Pop Quiz Number 6, we’ll explore some of the issues raised by scholarly study of the gospels—which laypeople should be aware of!


Question Number One:


In the year 70 CE, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. What impact did this catastrophe have on the development of Christianity?


Question Number Two: 


What is the Synoptic Problem? This has been a major preoccupation of Christian scholars for a long time.


Question Number Three:


Some Bible translators/editors print Jesus-script in the gospels in red. Why is this actually not a best practice? How is it misleading and inappropriate? 


Question Number Four:


The gospels are all about the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, but the New Testament epistles—including the authentic letters of the apostle Paul—barely mention what Jesus did and said. How can this be explained?   



Question Number Five:


Mark’s gospel depicts Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Is this in sync with your own view of Jesus?



Answers and Comments


Question One:


It looks like the destruction of Jerusalem got the gospel-writing process under way. It is the consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars that Mark was the first gospel written, and its thirteenth chapter is a clue that this took place after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70CE. In Mark 13:1-2 we find this Jesus-script:


“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”


This scene is set some forty years before the temple’s destruction. Was Jesus really good at predicting—as the faithful might want to believe—or much more likely: did Mark’s author create this scene to build his case that Jesus was the messiah who, inexplicably, had been executed many years earlier? Mark 13 presents a truly grim description of what the arrival of Jesus on the clouds will entail, e.g. “…in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now and never will be.” (v. 19) All this will finally prove that Jesus was the messiah after all. There will be considerable wrath against those who didn’t believe in Jesus.


But this gospel was not allowed to stand unchallenged. Matthew and Luke plagiarized most of Mark’s gospel (that is, they copied it without mentioning they had done so) and added material that suited their theologies.    


Moreover, the creation of the gospels decades after Jesus lived—assuming that he did exist—and after the massive upheaval and destruction caused by the war with the Romans, raises a crucial question: where did the gospel authors get their information? The overwhelming majority of Jesus’ contemporaries would have died by that time. It is often argued by devout scholars that “reliable” oral tradition kept memories of Jesus alive. But how likely is that? Are stories repeated for decades all that reliable? Were there written records that preserved the words and deeds of Jesus, and that the gospel authors had access to? None at all that we know of. How, when, and by whom were the sayings of Jesus written down—and where were they kept? One of the huge problems for New Testament scholars—who cling to the hope that there are tidbits of history somewhere in the gospels—is that these authors never name their sources. The enigmatic ending of John’s gospel is no help whatever. It claims (John 21:24) that it was Jesus’ beloved disciple “…who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” Since the other gospels do not mention this beloved disciple, we suspect that John made him up, to lend credibility to his story—especially since huge stretches of Jesus-script in John’s gospel are not found in the other gospels. This also sound like posturing: “we know that his testimony is true”—by a writer who created his gospel decades after the death of Jesus. 


Question Two:


Synoptic Problem: this sounds like scholar-talk, but any layperson who reads the gospels carefully has already sensed the problem. In the Wikipedia article on the synoptic gospels, we find this:


“This strong parallelism among the three gospels in content, arrangement, and specific language is widely attributed to literary interdependence. The question of the precise nature of their literary relationship—the synoptic problem—has been a topic of lively debate for centuries…”


A very handy tool that Christian laypeople should acquire is a book that presents the gospels, not one after the other (as standard Bible do), but rather prints the individual gospel episodes in parallel columns. As I mentioned earlier, Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark, and it’s so easy to spot in 
parallel columns how they reworded (or not) what they found there. It’s also helpful to see how Matthew and Luke shared (and altered) material not found in Mark, including Jesus-script. Luke shortened the Sermon on the Mount, split it up, and changed the wording. Did Jesus say, Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) or Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3)? It’s also possible that the Matthew invented the Sermon on the Mount, to make up for the lack of moral reaching in Mark’s gospel. Richard Carrier has explained why this famous sermon is, in fact, a literary creation that was not spoken extemporaneously by a preacher. See p. 465-466 in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.      


Anyone who seriously wants to understand Jesus as portrayed in the gospels knows there is considerable confusion in how the story unfolds in the different gospels. John is the most troubling, because it is so different from the first three, which themselves are far from consistent. Hence, the synoptic problem.


Question Three: 


Before printing the words of Jesus in red—as a guarantee that they are authentic, most laypeople would assume—how can they be verified? The red-ink policy is, in fact, not a best practice, because none of the words of Jesus can be verified. “But they’re in the Bible!” some believers might protest—as if that were a guarantee. How did they get there? Consider the process and the problems—the reasons to be skeptical:


Problem One: We have no information at all about when Jesus’ words were written down, by whom, and how such documents were preserved. There are no recording machines, no stenographers following Jesus around; most of the folks who heard him preach were illiterate, and in any case didn’t carry around pads of papers and pencils. It is quite okay to be skeptical that his words were remembered and recorded accurately. Maybe they were passed on by word of mouth, so some scholars have argued. But accurately, for how many years?  


Problem Two: The gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic. Can we trust that the translation was done accurately? We know, moreover, that the gospel writers—as they saw fit—changed the wording of their Jesus-script, as my illustration from the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates. 


Problem Three: We don’t have any of the original gospel documents. We have copies of copies of copies, and we know for sure that many errors and deliberate changes were made to the texts—so how can we be confident that the supposed Jesus-script is intact? And here’s an added frustration: there are no punctuation marks in the ancient documents, such as quotation marks. 


Only Bible editors who are pretty sure laypeople aren’t aware of these issues choose to print the words of Jesus in red. How does this not qualify as dishonesty?


Question Four:


Why do the gospels and epistles differ so much? The case has been made that the authentic letters of Paul were written before the gospels, and his main obsession was escape from death by believing in the resurrection of Jesus. He bragged in Galatians that he didn’t get any information about Jesus from the disciples: his visions/hallucinations were all he needed. And perhaps all the “information” we have about Jesus in the gospels wasn’t even known when early Christians were fervently inventing theology about their dying-and-rising savior god—an idea, it would seem, adapted from other ancient cults. In 1988 Randel Helms published his book, Gospel Fictions, and the case has been made repeatedly that the gospels fail as history because they include so much fantasy, miracle folklore, and magical thinking. 


It certainly is plausible that the epistles are about Christ-theology, while the gospels were an attempt to describe a holy hero who could measure up to that theology.


Question Five:


While it is easy for the laity to fall victim to clergy preaching about cherry-picked feel-good Bible verses, scholars know that Mark’s gospel sets a sinister tone that people prefer not to see. The later gospels adapted and modified Mark’s message, but he depicted an apocalyptic prophet who proclaimed a kingdom of god that was to arrive soon. This is primary focus of Mark’s gospel; he probably was under the influence of Paul’s sense of urgency. The latter was also sure that god’s default emotion was wrath, and Mark picked up on this as well. Mark’s 13th chapter qualifies as a Bible horror story. It’s bad theology, and Jesus as depicted here was simply wrong—as was Paul. For an in-depth look at this, see John Loftus’ essay, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” in his 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

When the devout come across Mark 13, surely they sense the horror, and look elsewhere for the Jesus they love. They are far more influenced by the feel-good verses. And of course by the comforting rituals, hymns—and depictions of Jesus in stained-glass. 


But aren’t we back to the issue of honesty? Is it honest to construct and promote an image of Jesus that ignores important gospel themes? Some Christian brands do embrace the vengeful Jesus-script that we find in Mark 13: they’re all for Jesus arriving on the clouds to get even with sinners. Bring it on! 


Now more than ever, the results of scholarly Bible study are accessible for anyone who is curious enough to explore, courageous enough to face so much evidence that undermines confidence in the Bible. The gap between what devout scholars know and what devout churchgoers believe is no longer defensible. Give top priority to curiosity and honesty.





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here

Please support us at DC by commenting on and by sharing our posts, or subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon.