I'm a long time reader of The Age newspaper's weekly television and radio lift out, the Green Guide. One thing that its columnists seem notable for is their disdain and mockery of Christianity. Brad Newsome was prevailed upon to review The Jesus Mysteries, a documentary showing on the National Geographic channel on Good Friday.
Newsome, whose area of interest is science, wrote as follows:
"One mystery is why everyone involved in all these Jesus documentaries seems to accept everything in the gospels as, well, gospel. True, there is next to nothing in the historical record to attest to Jesus' existence, let alone corroborate the gospel stories, so they're short of material to work with. But to proceed on the assumption that everything in the gospels is literally true is like making a doco on Islam and concluding that Muhammad really did fly around on a winged horse. The only scepticism displayed by the scholars and theologians assembled here has to do with extra-canonical matters. One of these is the belief that Jesus travelled to Britain and studied under druids (this began, we are told, with a yarn put about in the Middle Ages by an abbey in need of pilgrims). There's interesting stuff about the symbolism of the nativity stories, and the veneration and demonisation of Mary Magdalene. What would be even more interesting would be a documentary that took a serious look at the Bible as a human book, examining precursors and parallels in pagan religion and literature. Don't hold your breath."
Before I watch the documentary, let me offer the following responses to Newsome's review.
The majority of historians accept that Jesus was a historical figure. Likewise, when I discuss these matters with people, if you want to talk about the historicity of the gospels, I usually start with the gospel of Luke. Luke was a careful historian who compiled his account of the life of Jesus by speaking to eyewitnesses of the events described. Scholarly opinion on when it was written varies, either from 59 to 63 AD, or the 70s or 80s AD. In any event, it was written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses. As Craig S. Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary writes, "very few ancient biographies (the gospels are biographies) were written as close to the time of their subjects as the gospels were."
In any event, scholars believe that the synoptic gospels were written between 50 and 70 AD, and the gospel of John between 70 and 100 AD.
Then he conflates things by comparing Jesus to the prophet Muhammad, and Buraq the flying horse of Islamic belief. When I was at school and writing critiques of films or books, my teachers always marked me or my friends down if we went off on tangents and wrote about other subjects that were irrelevant to what we were writing about. If you don't want to lose marks, stay on topic.
Bart Ehrman is one of the scholars featured in this documentary. In contrast to classical Christianity, which holds that Jesus was God in human form, he believes that the early Christians attributed divinity to Jesus long after his death. Surely having a scholar of Ehrman's profile in this documentary should be enough to satisfy Newsome. Did Newsome know that Ehrman used to be a fundamentalist Christian, then a liberal Christian, but now self-identifies as as agnostic?
On the other hand, I share Newsome's skepticism that Jesus travelled to Britain to study under druids. Because some scholars believe that the gospels tell us nothing about the life of Jesus between the ages of 12 and the commencement of his public ministry as an adult, there is also a body of esoteric literature claiming that during these "missing" years, Jesus visited variously India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece and Egypt. This is reading things into the text that cannot be supported. It's more likely that he grew up like his peers, staying in his village of Nazareth (Luke 2:52), being schooled in Judaism, and learning the carpentry trade from his earthly father, Joseph (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22). In other words, Luke makes a summary statement about Jesus growing into adulthood, and he clearly was already well known in his community.
Newsome then sarcastically complains that the documentary doesn't deal with the Bible's precursors and parallels in pagan religion and literature. These objections are commonly made in atheist and skeptic circles. I wonder to how much depth Newsome looked at these issues? Did he watch the Zeitgeist movie, which also makes these claims, which a skeptic acquaintance of mine once suggested to me that I watch, in the hope that it might de-convert me?
Yes, the Bible is a human book. It didn't descend to earth from heaven, gilt edged and leather bound. Its authorship was superintended by God, with its authors writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It comprises 66 books, written by 40 different authors over a period of hundreds of years, and from beginning to end, it narrates God's plan of redemption for humanity and all of creation.
I'm sure that Newsome is very good at what he does, but in this review he's clearly operating outside of his area of expertise. He's clearly not across his brief. It would be akin to me attempting to write a structural engineering textbook on stresses and tension in bridge design and construction.