In the issue Jesus and the Apostles Christianity’s Early Rise, National Geographic, as usual, does incredible work making both ancient art and modern photography come to life in the visual retelling of what is arguably the grandest and most impactful story in human history. Unfortunately, the writing that accompanies this visual masterpiece falters in it’s quest for excellence. This unfortunate stumble happens because the author makes sweeping assertions about what events actually happened, and how these events came to us. These presuppositions are bold, stated as fact, and given completely without citing references. They are presented to the reader essentially as “common knowledge”.
For example, on page 28, we are told that the early followers of Jesus passed on their stories of Jesus until they got into the hands of people who could read and write. The assumption is that the disciples were illiterate. Later on page 33 we are told that none of the gospel writers ever met Jesus, and that the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all came towards the end of the first century.
Based on what can we assume that the disciples were illiterate, that the authors of the 1st four books of the New Testament never knew Jesus and that their writings came late in the first century? We are never told. Not a foot note, a bibliography, nothing, only the occasional “most scholars agree” line. Is it true? Internal evidence from the Bible itself resists this conclusion, the early church fathers don’t agree, and prominent scholars from this century like Craig Blomberg, would take issue with these conclusions.
Throughout this issue the Biblical record of events is always shrouded in doubt. We are told that none of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth are likely true, Pilate probably had little to nothing to do with Jesus’ death, nothing is actually known about what happened with the alleged coming of the Spirit, and Jesus probably didn’t claim to be the Messiah, but rather, his followers put those words in his mouth after he died. At the conclusion of this meandering patch work of guesses as to what is history and what is myth the author muses, “In the end the Jesus of history isn’t what matters most. It’s what we believe about him that counts.” This is liberalism. The great failed experiment of the 20th century. Christianity was never intended to be primarily a system of thought like Buddhism, or a philosophy of life like agnosticism. It is those things, but at it’s core Christianity is a story, a true story, the ultimate love story, that continues to change the world. Liberalism wants the love without the story. The story has miracles in it and miracles cannot be accepted as an accurate historical record. There must always be “some other explanation.” This issue of National Geographic is a classic portrayal of that.
However, It is interesting that the author refers often to the early martyrs. Whatever happened with Jesus — they believed it was true, and by the thousands they gladly gave up their lives for the truth of the risen Saviour. Not for conquest or defence like muslims, but for the sake of a story about a man from an obscure village in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. Would people give up their lives for a story that they knew was a lie? They were either completely deceived or the story is true. I got the sense that the author recognizes that the liberal explanation, doesn’t satisfactorily explain the existence of martyrs. Maybe, just maybe, he isn’t totally comfortable with his own conclusions.