tothesource: We’ve highlighted some de-conversion experiences in the past, principally Bible scholar Bart Ehrman’s account of how he lost his faith when he gained his Ph.D. You had somewhat the same experience at Harvard insofar as biblical studies seemed to undermine rather than support your faith. Yet, with you, there was a different outcome.
Mark Roberts: Yes, given what Bart Ehrman has written about his loss of faith in graduate school, I’d say you are right. My outcome was quite different, in that I emerged from my studies at Harvard with a vital Christian faith and with confidence that the Bible is, indeed, God’s inspired Word.
Please understand that I don’t mean to brag when I say this. I truly credit my growth in faith to God’s grace. But that grace took specific forms in my life, and these helped me to withstand the challenges of a critical approach to the Bible.
For example, I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. I was taught to question everything, to doubt even my own doubts, and to look carefully at the presuppositions behind any argument. So when I got to graduate school, it was only natural for me to scrutinize the critical approaches of New Testament scholars. What I found was that many were making philosophical assumptions, usually unconfessed ones, that had a huge impact on their scholarship and their conclusions. Now I was also making assumptions, but at least I was willing to see and to admit mine.
Take the most obvious case. Many New Testament scholars deny, as a matter of assumption, that miracles happen or that they can be part of an historical account of early Christianity. So when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, these scholars are simply unable to consider the possibility that Jesus really rose from the dead and that this was the watershed event in the development of the Christian movement. When they conclude that the resurrection didn’t happen, this is not because they have weighed the evidence with open minds. Rather, their assumption predetermined their conclusion.
Another of God’s gifts to me in graduate school was having solid Christian colleagues and friends. My faith was nurtured by my fellow students, with whom I shared an active life of worship and prayer, as well as intellectual engagement. I don’t know if Bart Ehrman had such fellowship or not. For me, this was essential. My faith was not just something I studied under the microscope of high criticism, but something I experienced each day.
tts: Would it be fair to say that philosophy helped you because it allowed you to be more critical than your religion professors?
Roberts: More critical, yes, perhaps, in some ways. It might be fairer to say that I thought critically about things my professors appeared to take for granted. My profs in grad school were brilliant thinkers, people of great learning and, I should add, admirable graciousness. But they did seem to accept without argument many of the assumptions of New Testament scholarship, such as the impermissibility of allowing the possibility of miracles to impact our historical work.
I was also struck by the extent to which my professors were mostly unaware of competent evangelical scholarship. Only once in my entire time in graduate school was I assigned a book by an evangelical scholar. None of my professors ever dealt with scholars like F.F. Bruce or assigned books written by him and others like him. These “liberal” scholars were surprisingly illiberal when it came to the ideas they entertained or required us to study. It seemed as if there was a party line that determined the canon of books that we should read, and this line eliminated evangelical scholarship.
Let me add that sometimes conservative scholars fall into the same trap, reading and interacting only with other conservative scholars. This, I think, limits their effectiveness and their insights, even as it did with my profs on the other side of the theological equation.
tts: Today there seems to be a booming market in selling ancient Gnostic texts as revealing the real Jesus. One thinks of the books of Elaine Pagels, for example, or the lamentable success of The DaVinci Code. But in a very interesting way, reading Gnostic texts actually helped you regain your faith in the reliability of the Gospels.
Roberts: Yes, indeed. I know this sounds ironic, even counterintuitive, but actually it makes a great deal of sense. First, a little background. I began reading the Nag Hammadi texts in college with Prof. George MacRae, one of the leading scholars on Gnosticism and a contributor to the Nag Hammadi Library volume in English. Under his expert eye, I came to understand Gnosticism in a fairly deep way, never, ever thinking that this would have any contemporary value. So when Gnosticism (or a postmodern revision of Gnosticism) began to be popular, I was shocked. But I was also prepared to deal with Gnosticism as a historian (largely through my website, www.markdroberts.com, and now throughCan We Trust the Gospels?)
I’ve said before that perhaps the quickest cure for a naïve admiration of Gnosticism is taking time to read actual Gnostic writings. The majority of people today who think the Gnostic gospels are so wonderful have never actually read them. Most have seen only excerpts that are found in the writings of scholars who have refashioned Gnosticism to fit postmodern values, values completely opposite to authentic Gnosticism. For example, contemporary lovers of Gnosticism think it allowed individuals to find the divine within themselves in a free-form, individualistic way. In fact, Gnosticism held that only a very few people are able to discover the divine inside, and these do so only through the work of an outside redeemer. Consider another example, that of the female in Gnosticism. Yes, there are passages in which women receive revelation and pass it on authoritatively. This would seem to support a feminist agenda. But there are famous passages within the Gnostic corpus that are profoundly anti-woman. Yet you’ll hear people talk about Gnosticism as if it were the ancient precursor to modern feminism. Silly!
It has been claimed, most famously in The DaVinci Code, that the Gnostic gospels portray a more human Jesus. This is laughable. Moreover, it is an insult to the Gnostics, who denigrated the human Jesus and had no interest in His fleshly existence. Their so-called gospels have almost nothing to do with the real Jesus, intentionally.
tts: Let’s turn to the real Gospels, and your book, Can We Trust the Gospels? I pick up my Bible and read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke on the birth of Jesus, and notice what appear to me to be contradictions. Did the angel speak to Mary or Joseph? Was Jesus born in a house or a manger? Were there wise men or not? Help us!
Roberts: No doubt about it, Matthew and Luke differ in their telling of the Nativity story. But to say, as many skeptical writers on the Gospels have said, that Matthew and Luke greatly contradict each other in the telling of the birth of Jesus, is a mistake. For one thing, Matthew and Luke agree on the main items. I’ve counted seventeen common elements.
Beyond these agreements, it is not a contradiction for one writer to say that the shepherds visited Jesus and another writer to say that the Magi visited Jesus. Strictly speaking, a contradiction would be having Matthew say “The wise men visited Jesus” and Luke say “The wise men did not visit Jesus.” You won’t find this sort of contradiction in the Gospels.
Sometimes you hear critics speak of how the early Christians were making up things about Jesus right and left, without any concern for history. You can in fact find this sort of thing in the non-canonical gospels of the second-century and beyond. But it is fascinating to note how much the early church preserved intact the minimalistic accounts in the biblical Gospels. The temptation to make the stories of Jesus’s birth more elaborate must have been great, as would the temptation to blend the stories together into a seamless and safe whole. But the early church preserved the Gospel stories as they received them, warts and all, if you will. This speaks highly of the intention of the first Christians to get the story right and to preserve it accurately.
You see this concern for truthfulness most of all in the portrayal of the disciples of Jesus. Those upon whom the early church was built, the first leaders and heroes, if you will, are portrayed throughout the New Testament Gospels as bunglers who just don’t understand Jesus. This is astounding when you consider how important the disciples were to the early church. Yet the Gospel writers consistently told the embarrassing truth about their patriarchs, and the orthodox church preserved this truth. This powerfully underscores the reliability of the Gospels, in my opinion.
tts: You call Can We Trust the Gospels? a “blook.” Perhaps you’d better explain!
Roberts: Please forgive a bit of silliness. A “blook” is a blog turned into a book. I didn’t make up this name, by the way. But it is true that Can We Trust the Gospels? began as an extended blog series on my website: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?(http://www.markdroberts.com/htmfiles/resources/gospelsreliable.htm). A couple of the leaders of Crossway Books followed this blog series, and after it was over, approached me about turning it into a book. I took the original series, added to it and edited it, and voilà, a book was born, or a blook, if you will.