January 16, 2021

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 6- The Gospels

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible — by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 6- The Gospels

Polkinghorne begins this chapter with the observation that no literature in the ancient world has been subjected to such intense scholarly scrutiny as the four Gospels.  For at least the last two hundred years, critical study has concentrated on seeking to analyze and evaluate what can be reliably learned from the Gospels, especially about the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  Many scholars have adopted what Polkinghorne calls a strategy of relentless skepticism.  But he believes to adopt such a stance is, in fact, disastrous, for it induces a kind of intellectual paralysis.  It’s a type of intellectual nihilism, where nothing can be believed because there is no chance of anything being demonstrated to be believable.  No other literature of the past is subjected to, or judged according to, this withering and relentless skepticism.  If it were, we could know nothing or learn anything from the past.  Perhaps, being a geologist, I’m more sensitive to the disaster of extreme empiricism.  In the business, we call it paralysis by analysis.  Geology deals with indirect evidence and is largely a science of induction about past events based on the traces left by those events in the present.  We use remote sensing tools like ground penetrating radar, magnetic induction, and resistivity measurement to induce what lies beneath the surface of the earth.  We probe with core drilling and down-hole geophysics to assess sub-surface conditions at spot locations and then interpolate and/or extrapolate the findings to give a coherent picture.  Is it 100% accurate?  Never.  Is it good enough to establish a well-motivated belief that allows us to act?  Yes.  And so Polkinghorne believes the rational strategy is to commit oneself to what one considers to be a well-motivated belief, while being aware that sometimes it may need revision in the light of further evidence and insight.  This is the spirit in which he seeks to approach the Gospels.  He says:

The traditional assignments of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John only originated from statements made in the second century, where we are also told that Mark was closely associated with the apostle Peter and derived much of his material from him.  There is much scholarly discussion about what to make of these claims, for the evidence they present is fragmentary and indirect.  I think the essential question is not the identity of the particular person who wrote a particular text but the historical reliability of what was written.  This is an issue to which we shall pay careful attention.

Even a casual reader will perceive that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a good deal of similarities while John is distinctly different.  The Synoptic Gospels show Jesus as rooted in first century Jewish life, giving much of his teaching in homely parables and focusing his message of the coming of the Kingdom.  In John, Jesus speaks in more timeless tones and much of what he says centers on himself.  The series of “I Am” sayings—the bread of life (John 6:35), the light of the world (John 8:12), and so—assert astonishing claims to unique and universal significance, and this attitude is reinforced by repeated depictions of himself as the Son sent by the Father and in intimate relation with Him.  But John’s Jesus is no mere heavenly figure, the Word who was with God and who was God, but also the Word made flesh John 1:1-14).  When Jesus meets the woman of Samaria at the well, he is genuinely tired and thirsty and he has to ask her for a drink (John 4:3-14).

Mark the Evangelist, 16th-century Russian icon

The similarities between the Synoptics probably stem from the fact they share much material in common.  A great deal of Mark’s Gospel reappears in Matthew and Luke, sometimes with interesting small changes in detail; one reason most scholars believe Mark to be the earliest Gospel.  Matthew and Luke have in common a substantial body of material which many scholars believe may derive from an earlier document (often referred to as Q– from German: Quelle, meaning “source”).  Polkinghorne says:

In understanding the Gospels, it is important to realize that they are not biographies written in a modern manner.  Not only do they omit much that such biographies would contain (What did Jesus look like?), but also, in the ancient world, writings about an important person were selective and concentrated simply on what was of central significance for the character portrayed.  Moreover, there was not the modern concern to be absolutely accurate about matters of subsidiary detail.

The essential point that the Gospels are seeking to get across is expressed in John, where it is said, “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:3).

Polkinghorne gives the example of the curing of blindness in or near Jericho—Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, and Luke 18:35-43.  In Matthew two men are encountered on the way out of Jericho.  In Mark it is one man as they are leaving the city.  In Luke it is one man met on entry to the city.  Clearly, all three are telling essentially the same story, whose deeper significance is that meeting with Jesus brings people out of darkness into light.  We may easily imagine these differences of detail arising in the period of oral transmission prior to the consolidation into written form.  I think we have good reason to believe that they were seeking to tell a reliable story of what happened, expressed within the historical conventions of their time.  Another sign of this is recording sayings of Jesus that were problematic for them, but which had to be included in a truthful account.  For example, in Mark 10:17-20, a man comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  Jesus is said to have responded, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Since the early Church believed that Jesus was sinless, this saying must have seemed a hard one to understand, but it had to be reported because it was there in the tradition.  All four Gospels tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus.  That was a highly embarrassing incident in the life of one of the early leaders of the Church.  Nevertheless, it had to be recorded because it was what actually happened.

Polkinghorne notes that the most certain fact about the deeds of Jesus is that he was an outstanding healer.  There are so many stories of healings in the Gospels that they could not be excised without destroying the whole fabric of the narratives.  A repeated theme is controversy about healing on the Sabbath.  This was clearly a point of sharp contention between Jesus and the Jewish authorities and this could not have been the case unless there actually were such healings.

Amsterdam Maritime Museum- the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death

Another fact about Jesus that it seems impossible to doubt is his willingness to accept, and even eat with, disreputable sinners, including tax collectors and prostitutes.  We moderns get the part about prostitutes, but it is hard for us to imagine the absolute hatred of the first century Jews towards the “tax collectors”.  First, no one likes to pay money to the government, especially when the government is an oppressive regime like the Roman Empire of the 1st century.  Second, the tax collectors in the Bible were Jews who were working for the hated Romans. These individuals were seen as turncoats, traitors to their own countrymen. Rather than fighting the Roman oppressors, the publicans were helping them—and enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow Jews.  Third, the tax collectors made their living by extracting more money than the Romans were levying.  The Romans didn’t care how much the collectors extracted, as long as they got their cut.  So a rich publican, like Zacchaeus, got rich by using Roman authority and the threat of punishment to gouge his own fellow countryman.  So Jesus’ behavior scandalized his Jewish contemporaries, who strongly disapproved of his acting that way without first insisting on an act of public repentance.  The fact that the original twelve disciples consisted of Matthew, the tax collector, and Simon, the Zealot, who regularly knifed tax collectors is not to be minimized; it is a reflection of who Jesus was and what he stood for.

Lastly, Polkinghorne comments of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  He notes we are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are.  Luke seems to tell the story from Mary’s perspective; he likely conducted interviews with her in compiling his accounts.  Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective.

Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with what is known of ancient history, and with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great.  A principal concern in both stories is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required.  Polkinghorne does not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task.

Luke, explicitly, and Matthew, more obliquely, both assert the virginal conception of Jesus.  Christian tradition attaches much more significance to this than the rest of the New Testament seems to.  Paul is content simply to lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: “God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).  Polkinghorne states:

The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than that for belief in the Resurrection.

I’m with Polkinghorne here as he echoes C.S. Lewis.  The alternative is that Joseph and Mary were bumping uglies ahead of schedule, Mary did the deed with someone else and cheated on Joseph, or Mary was raped and chose to hide that.  The first two make Mary (and Joseph) to be liars, something contrary to the witness of their character.  The third has some plausibility in that societal context, which would try to blame Mary for rape.  So if you want to believe the Virgin Birth is a later accretion by the Church, then have at it; you probably believe the same thing about Jesus’ claim to divinity and the Resurrection.  I’m going to save my rant for the next chapter on the cross and resurrection.

But please don’t try to make some argument about scientific impossibility; of course it’s impossible; hence the term miracle.  I’m in firm agreement with Lewis (from Miracles) here:

The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people ‘in olden times’ believed in [miracles] ‘because they didn’t know the laws of Nature.’ Thus you will hear people say, ‘The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.’ Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the cause of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men.

No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point– that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, ‘The thing is scientifically impossible,’ he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature.

When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancée’s pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature… as evidence of supernatural power… Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known…

…the grounds for belief and disbelief are the same to-day as they were two thousand – or ten thousand – years ago. If St. Joseph had lacked faith to trust God or humility to perceive the holiness of his spouse, he could have disbelieved in the miraculous origin of her Son as easily as any modern man; and any modern man who believes in God can accept the miracle as easily as St. Joseph did…

As a modern man, who is a scientist, I accept the miracle.


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    westerly wind blows
    dry red rose petals fly by
    breathe life into us.

  2. Ronald Avra says

    I’m starting the day off dragging about, having a rough time getting the day started. Today’s post was a good boost for the morale. Thanks.

  3. Another fine book report on this particular chapter, Mike. Thanks. I’m liking your series on this topic/book.

  4. Mike the G Man, Again thanks for this great series. I rented the movie Rocky thinking it was a story of a geologist but it was about a fighter, I was disappointed.
    I think it is a rare gift that someone can examine and explain and then articulate such a good message and viewpoint as Polkinghorne. That Polinghorne and other great minds though the ages can write at a level that I can comprehend is truly a miracle.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      That Polinghorne and other great minds though the ages can write at a level that I can comprehend is truly a miracle.

      In French, this is called “vulgarization”, the ability to explain complex/technical concepts in terms and words easily-understandable to most everyone. Stephen Jay Gould was the classic master of this in his editorial essays for Natural History (collected in several volumes). To a lesser extent, so was Carl Sagan in his Cosmic Connection and the original Cosmos.

      • Headless U Guy, Thanks for the info, did not know. Now when people tell me I am vulgar I will graciously say thank you or merci to them. My main problem is usually people cannot make it simple enough for me.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      John Barry: Thank you for the gneiss compliment. As you might know, most geologists are outstanding in their fields. As a profession, we don’t comment much on blogs, but I’m a little boulder. I know that taking core samples sounds interesting to you, but it’s actually a little boring. But of course, that’s not my fault. I mean, sometimes schist happens. If you’re ever in town, I’ll invite you over for some cheese. My favorite is debris, it wins by a landslide. Well, I don’t want to take your time for granite, but generally I lava your comments, but then I’m the sedimental type. Don’t be upset if some of these puns fluorite over your head, that just tuff.

  5. Mike the G Man, You know I love it, well done and funny. Of course I have a different sense of humor as I still think that Larry was the funny one of the Stooges. Some of my friends say he was the straight man but I do not care about his sexual orientation.
    You know what they do with dead geologist——————-Barium

    I cannot get into a battle of wits , I am unarmed. I voted for Trump , I have a misprint , seconds bargain bin Trump hat, yes I have a MAGMA hat that only a g man would love.

    I know Rock of Ages is your favorite hymn because you would know better than try to study shifting sand.

    Do they play We Will Rock You at the g man meetings? I am sure you are a charter member of the Dwayne Johnson fan club.

    I am serious when I am thanking you for your time and efforts in posting on Thursday. I really dig it.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      John Barry: My sediments exactly. Of course, us sharing geology jokes shows we’ve hit rock bottom, but we’re down to earth people and it takes alkynes. This landslide of puns is unbelievable. The magnitude of them erupted my happiness off the Richter scale. I know you were under a lot of pressure to metamorph this thread into awesomeness. “May the Quartz be with you”

      • Will you two blockheads knick it off? You are not playing gneiss. 😛

      • john barry says

        Mike the G Man, I cede the ground to you. I have no earthly chance of out punning someone who has a solid bedrock of apt puns stored on perhaps a continental shelf. I shale not make any more gee logy puns as I am out of ammo. You show your experience with the way you pick your words. I have a conglomerate of thoughts but I cannot separate them into a good thought. I fold and will go underground.
        In your honor I will plan a trip to Stone Mt and read the Good Earth while watching As the World Turns.
        I appreciate your articles and to me you are the salt of the earth. I fold and promise no more bad attempts at humor on this subject.

  6. “withering and relentless skepticism…”

    As opposed to what? Blinkered credulity? Of those two options which has been the real problem? Sure for the past two hundred years critical scholars have been subjecting Holy Writ to historical and textual analysis. But let’s not forget the previous eighteen centuries where showing any skepticism whatsoever could easily get you killed.

    The complaint about excessive skepticism has always seemed a bit disingenuous to me. What are we afraid of? Don’t we want our ideas and beliefs to comport with reality? Remember the words of Gamaliel!

    • “What are we afraid of? Don’t we want our ideas and beliefs to comport with reality?”

      For many, the words of the Bible (and they just read it, never interpret it!) ARE reality. That decision has already been made. Therefore, anything that contradicts that is a deception, and anybody who believes what contradicts them is either deceived or a deceiver.

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Relentless skepticism and blinkered credulity are the two extremes. Thankfully, these are the poles, not the only options.

  7. I’m not sure anymore what I enjoy most: Mike’s original book report post, or the banter between Mike and John Barry…

  8. Jesus approached the Scriptures uniquely. As a man of pure and perfect intention he was bound by no law including the theological rules of reading and interpreting scripture. He, like Paul in some cases after him, plucked the words that suited his situation and did with them as he wished. He truly wielded them like a sword in a duel or a balm to a wound. We do something akin but He was completely at ease because the words on the page were subject to him. We could do exactly the same but for lingering self interest and less than shimmering intention. Search me oh God and know my heart… Oh to be in that place where we are in such union with the living Word that the written word is subject to us! That’s a rare bird. I think we each have our moments of such clarity but slip back again from the glide to the trudge. The written word is by and large our master, as it must be to keep us aloft. With Christ it was his servant. It was a prop to express the very essence of who he was. When he was accused of being a rule breaker it’s because he was.

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