PBS Evolution Series

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Some evolutionists are definitely worried. Creation, intelligent design and a general dissent concerning Darwinian evolution continue to gain ground–so much so that a deliberate counterattack has been launched. Using scientists from around the world, professional defenders of evolution, beautiful nature photography, computer graphics and simulations, the prestige of the PBS NOVA series and the financial backing of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, a monumental defense and celebration of evolution has been produced.

The new PBS Evolution Series is a seven part, eight hour documentary originally aired on PBS stations around the country in late September of 2001 and rebroadcast in May and June of 2002. Accompanying the video series is an interactive Web site, 360-page companion book, coordinated teacher training and education, and a determined publicity campaign aimed at getting the series into the nation’s high schools.

The explicit goals of the series are to help students understand the critical importance of evolutionary theory in understanding so many scientific and health issues of today–from AIDS to antibiotic resistance to fighting agricultural pests to even how we choose a sexual partner. The producers set out to establish the overwhelming evidence behind evolution and the soundness of the science behind it. They specifically sought to pursue solid science journalism and forego the religious realm.

Essentially, the series has failed on all counts. This beautiful documentary is loaded with speculation, exaggerated evidence and claims, glossing over of legitimate controversy, and a persistent hostility towards any religious perspective deemed incompatible with evolution.

Episode One begins with a dramatization of a conversation between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle in South America as Darwin is purchasing a fossil. The fictitious conversation clearly pokes fun at the Biblical account of the flood. Darwin was nowhere near as skeptical as portrayed, and Fitzroy was nowhere near as literal either. This opening scene lays the groundwork for a continual assault on history and the evidence to make evolution look as positive as possible and opponents of evolution as silly as possible.

This two-hour opening episode crosses paths with religion several more times in discussions of the philosophical meaning of evolution in an interview of Kenneth Miller, a Darwin defender who finds no incompatibility between his Christian faith and Darwinian evolution. In this opening episode the producers present a confusing contradiction. On the one hand Darwin’s dangerous idea precludes any true meaning to life and on the other hand, Darwinian evolution is completely compatible with an informed Christian faith. For more detailed analysis of this episode consult the Discovery Institute’s free Viewer’s guide available on the Internet at www.reviewevolution.com.

“Great Transformations” and “Extinction”

Perhaps the most foundational episode is Episode Two: The Great Transformations. One’s expectation would be the presentation of numerous persuasive transitional forms demonstrating without doubt, the common ancestry of all life. Instead we are treated to a certainty based on the usual arguments from authority, selective fragmentary fossil evidence, and speculative molecular mechanisms.

The opening segment presents the mounting evidence for the amazing transition from a terrestrial wolf-like vertebrate to modern aquatic whales. Lots of fossils and reconstructions are paraded before us, unfolding the supposed story of whale evolution. Complete skeletons are pictured with no indication that they are based on very partial fossil finds. The overall transitional series is discussed with certainty despite the fact that evolutionists themselves admit that the known members of the transitional series are not thought to be the actual members of the transitional series but just representative of what the actual transitional species may have looked like.{1} Also missing is the admission that, by the very nature of fossils, it can never really be known if any one fossil was ancestral to another.

Also featured in this episode is the stunning Cambrian explosion of animal life forms featuring Simon Conway Morris. Morris freely admits that “this sudden appearance of the fossils led to this term, the Cambrian explosion. Darwin, as ever, was extremely candid, he said, Look, this is a problem for my theory. How is it that suddenly animals seem to come out of nowhere? And to a certain extent that is still something of a mystery.” As the segment develops, no attempt is made to explore or resolve this mystery. The experts make only vague references to evolution tinkering with what already exists. But even tinkering is a design activity, design with a purpose. Natural selection would be better described as a blindfolded man trying to navigate a minefield.

Episode 3 explores the evolutionary significance of extinction. Both the great Permian extinction of 250 million years ago and the KT extinction of dinosaur fame of 65 million years ago are explored and make fascinating stories. Their relation to evolution is obscure, however. Mass extinctions supposedly open up the playing field for new and diverse species to evolve due to less competition. But Darwinian natural selection supposedly thrives on competition. The segments on biological invaders, while important in and of themselves, have little to add to the evolutionary debate. Biological control has been practiced for centuries with no knowledge of evolution.{2} Once again, we witness lots of authoritative posturing but little evidence for evolution.

“The Evolutionary Arms Race” and “Why Sex?”

For many years medical authorities have been warning of the dangers of infectious bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in western society has led to an increase in the number of strains of bacteria that are resistant to our primary defense against infection. In Episode Four of PBS’s Evolution Series titled “The Evolutionary Arms Race,” we are told this is evolution in action.

First, this statement leads to the conclusion that knowledge of evolution is essential to designing adequate health care. And second, labeling antibiotic resistance as evolution in action implicitly states that evolution is a fact, since antibiotic resistance is a fact. This is another case of a selective use of evidence. What the producers of Evolution don’t say is that the mechanisms for antibiotic resistance have been known for years. Usually the capacity to resist antibiotics has always been in the bacterial population and does not result from mutation. Even when a mutation is responsible, a new function is never evolved, just the damaging of an existing function. Sometimes the mutation results in the antibiotic being expelled from the cell faster or taken in more slowly. This doesn’t create a new species and doesn’t fundamentally change the organism.

Another factor left out of the discussion is that antibiotic resistance always comes with a cost of its own. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are always inferior to the original wild-type bacteria. Their growth is stunted. Sometimes these costs can be compensated for but also at additional costs. Resistant bacteria are not better bacteria. Remove the antibiotic and they quickly lose out to the original wild-type bacteria. Therefore, to suggest that in the case of resistant tuberculosis that the bacteria evolved right inside the human host is highly misleading. The bacterial resistant forms were already present, the bacterium has not changed or evolved at all.

While the episode gives numerous examples of natural selection on a micro scale, the evidence discussed tells us nothing of how antibiotic resistance arose in the first place or how ants, molds, fungi, and bacteria first became intricately associated.

The fifth episode contains perhaps the least science and relevance to evolution, but will certainly be the most entertaining and even titillating for high school students. The episode “Why Sex” tries to ascertain the purpose and even evolution of sexual reproduction. While containing some helpful information and case studies, the program is full of speculative storytelling and an overload of sexual displays and sexual acts from fish to lizards, to birds, to chimpanzees and even a highly unnecessary and suggestive encounter between humans.

Also included is a highly controversial, yet factually presented discussion of evolutionary psychology and one researchers ideas that all forms of human artistic endeavors are little more than sexual displays. Some of their own previously used evolutionary experts would find most of this episode an incredible waste of time and money.

“The Mind’s Big Bang” and “What About God?”

The uniqueness of human beings presents a difficult evolutionary puzzle. So much of who and what we are is categorically different from other animal species that trying to account for it by mutation and natural selection presents a tough challenge. In Episode Six, “The Mind’s Big Bang,” we unfortunately don’t get much of an answer.

The episode begins by documenting the amazing human capacity for art in the caves of France. This launches a long series of segments that document the early appearance of artistic expression that has its roots in the development of tool making. Eventually this explosion of capacities rooted in the brain is traced to the remarkable development of human language. As in other episodes there is lots of speculation about the selective advantages of language, but this tells us nothing of how language evolved. The discussion gives the impression that if we can just discover what language is used for, we will know how it evolved. This is typical evolutionary story-telling masquerading as science.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language candidly admits that “For centuries, people have speculated over the origins of human language. . . . [but] the quest is a fruitless one. . . . We have no direct knowledge of the origins and early development of language, nor is it easy to imagine how such knowledge might ever be obtained.”{3} The Discovery Institute’s Viewers Guide also notes that we are told that language was the key to our becoming human. In Episode Two, however, we were told it was the ability to walk on two legs and in Episode Five it was using our brains to choose sexual partners. This confusion of “key events” exposes them for the speculation they truly are.{4}

The final episode “What About God?” reveals the entire series as the propaganda it is meant to be. Here we meet the old science vs. religion argument in all its glory. The Evolution producers go to great lengths to distort the controversy to their own ends. The Scopes trial and the Sputnik-induced revolution in science education are neatly packaged and distorted as science vs. religion. The inquiring and passionate science students and professors who have no quarrel with evolution are favorably portrayed against uneducated parents and naïve Bible literalists. Theistic evolutionist Keith Miller is pictured as a liberator to Wheaton College students who don’t want to be perceived as unintelligent.

What becomes unmistakably clear in this episode is that the reigning naturalistic stranglehold on science education is to be maintained at all costs. Those who oppose it, risk being branded as dangerous or stupid or ignorant or all three. Censorship of facts contrary to evolution is justified in the name of science. The bottom line is that “It’s OK for people to believe in God, as long as their beliefs don’t conflict with Darwinian evolution. A religion that fully accepts Darwin’s theory is good. All others are bad.”{5}

The PBS Evolution Web Site

Located at www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution, the PBS Evolution Web site is a goldmine of information and teaching suggestions along with interactive games and exercises aimed at sharpening one’s evolutionary skills. But visitors should also expect that much of the information contained here employs the same sleight of hand that the video series uses in relating evidence for evolution. With such a great volume of information available at the Evolution Web site, I will direct my attention to one article as an example. Under the main heading of “Change,” an essay is offered critiquing Intelligent Design. The essay is authored by Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biology professor, featured in the first episode as a Roman Catholic who sees no problem with evolution.

The essay is titled “Life’s Grand Design” and purports to explain how evolution accounts for the design of nature far better than an intelligent designer would. His entire discussion revolves around the design of the human eye.{6} On page one Miller presents the problem. The eye is exquisite in its design, accomplishing the wondrous effect of color vision with a very complicated design. How could it possibly have evolved one step at a time? On page two, Miller begins his response with the standard blind watchmaker explanation from Richard Dawkins. Miller emphasizes the gradual slight improvements and that all those that are positive will be selected. This is not necessarily true. It is well known that some genetic changes will be so slight that they do not offer a significant enough selective advantage and therefore, will be lost. Miller ignores the uncomfortable details.

Miller then describes how easy it would be to build an eye from just a few light-sensitive cells. But he starts with “light- sensitive cells.” Where did these come from? How did they become light sensitive? The molecular mechanism of light sensitivity is quite complex and one of Michael Behe’s examples of irreducible complexity. But once again Miller ignores the uncomfortable details. Miller states, “it is possible to draw a series of incremental changes that would lead directly to the lens and retina eye.” But you know, I’m not interested in whether it can be drawn. I want to know how it would evolve biologically.

Finally Miller delivers the coup de grace; the eye exhibits design flaws that any engineer would never employ. You see, the human eye seems to have things a little backwards. The light- sensitive cells face the back of the eye or the retina, instead of the front of the eye where the light comes from. Therefore, the incoming light must pass through the nerve cells and blood vessels first, potentially distorting the image. Not only that, but the nerve cells eventually bunch together before punching through the retina en route to the brain, therefore creating a dangerous blind spot. Surely an intelligent designer wouldn’t do it that way. The eye is therefore a great example of evolution at work. Evolution simply arrives at the best available solution.

But again, Miller ignores the details. He doesn’t reveal that the layer of cells behind the nerve cells, behind the blood vessels and behind the photoreceptor cells, is an immensely important group of cells we will abbreviate as the RPE (Retinal Pigmented Epithelium). The RPE is necessarily in close proximity to the photoreceptor cells, the rods and cones, because the RPE replenishes the necessary molecules for vision. With the RPE at the very back of the retina, these cells act as an absorptive layer to get rid of excess light. Without the RPE we would be blinded by ordinary sunlight. Also the absorption of excess light sharpens our vision. So the designer has a dilemma. Both the nerves and blood vessels must be in front of the rods and cones or the RPE must be in front because both must be in direct contact with the photoreceptor cells and they all won’t fit and function together. Something will get between the light and the light sensitive cells. Putting the blood vessels and nerves in front of the rods and cones creates a very mild light filter, but does create a blind spot where the nerves bundle together. However, putting the RPE between the light and the rods and cones would create a much more detrimental filter and diffusing agent. The vertebrate eye is structured properly when all factors are considered.

“The vertebrate eye provides an excellent example of functional– though non-intuitive design. The design of the retina is responsible for its high acuity and sensitivity. It is simply untrue that the retina is demonstrably suboptimal, nor is it easy to conceive how it might be modified without significantly decreasing function.”{7}

As we have seen in this essay, evolution can offer some impressive evidences on first glance. But time and time again, the intricacies of design are in the details.


1. The story of whale evolution has indeed grown more sophisticated over the last 10-15 years. Indeed, this was one transition that many creationists had a great deal of fun with. How could a land mammal evolve into a whale? How could the transitional forms possibly be functional on land or in water? If one were to scan the presumed transitional series (found on page 138 of Evolution by Carl Zimmer, Harper Collins, 2001) it is quite impressive evidence for evolution. The transitional series, while a little jerky with certain gaps remaining, appears gradual enough and the fossils seem to appear in the expected order and strata. But as always, the truth is in the details. Two recent articles investigate the evidence with some detail and rigor. Ashby Camp has written a fine summary (last modified March 11, 2002) and critique of the fossil evidence for whale evolution that is available from the TrueOrigins website at www.trueorigins.org/whales.asp. Also, John Woodmorappe has analyzed the mixture of characters in some of the whale-like fossils in his article “Walking whales, nested hierarchies, and chimeras: do they exist?” in TJ 16(1) 2002: 111-119. TJ was formerly Creation Ex Nihilo: Technical Journal.
What we learn from these articles is that the true land mammal ancestor of whales is still in dispute. The pakicetids, the first “intermediate,” are true land mammals with a few potential aquatic features in their inner ears. The next group known as ambulocetids show some aquatic features but other features distance them from actual whale ancestors. Many of these are not in the proper stratigraphic position. The pakicetids and ambulocetids are all less than 10 feet long; the fully marine Basilosaurus are all over 50 feet in length. Even by evolutionary standards there isn’t enough time between these species to evolve even this simple increase in length. None of the species depicted on page 138 of Evolution are thought to be actual ancestors of modern whales. The diagram is actually drawn to indicate this fact but most people looking at it won’t come away with that impression. Each species is diagrammed as an offshoot of the lineage but not an actual transitional form. How come we always find just “types” of ancestors and never the ancestors themselves? Some character or another always disqualifies the intermediate in question. There seems to be a deeper lesson here that most evolutionists are unwilling to face.

2. The documentation of human interference in the ecosystems of Hawaii and Thailand are summed up with a plea to slow down the rate of human induced extinction and allow nature to take its own more natural and easy-paced course. This implies, however, that humans are somehow outside the loop of nature. If we are just another biological species, then we are only acting according to our own biological nature. How or why should this be suppressed? As in past mass extinctions, the strong, opportunistic and lucky will survive. Perhaps that includes us, perhaps not. In the naturalistic worldview of the series, what’s the difference? This is another example of stealthily applying a Christian worldview that gives intrinsic value to nature while maintaining the guise of naturalism. In a naturalistic worldview, nature just is. Choosing to interfere on nature’s behalf indicates intrinsic value and worth that can only come from outside nature itself. In the Christian worldview, this comes from God.

3. David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 6,290.

4. www.reviewevolution.com, p. 92.

5. Ibid, p. 107.

6. www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/change/grand/, p. 1-6.

7. George Ayoub, On the design of the vertebrate retina, Origins and Design, Vol. 17(1): 19-22. This article can also be found on the web at www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od171/retina171.htm.

©2002 Probe Ministries

The Historical Christ


Can we trust what our New Testaments tell us about Jesus? Or must we look elsewhere and possibly conclude that Jesus was just a man like all others whose teachings became the basis of a religion largely created by his followers?

Over the past fifteen years or so, New Testament scholars have been involved in what has been called the Third Quest for the historical Jesus. The television program “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians,”{1} which aired on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations April 7th and 8th, 1998, was intended to bring the public up-to-date with the latest “new and controversial historical evidence” about Jesus and the establishment of the church.

If you watched the program you might have been surprised by some of the things you heard. The narrator said that “archaeologists must sift clues and scholars decode the stories told by the first followers of Jesus” in order to find the truth. It was suggested that the differences between Mark’s and John’s reports about Jesus’ arrest is evidence that they aren’t historically accurate accounts. One participant said that the Gospel writers were only giving their own theology using Jesus as a spokesman.

For the scholars on “From Jesus to Christ,” Jesus was just a man who preached about the coming kingdom of God. He was not the incarnate Son of God. But he had enough charisma that he was able to gather about himself a group of people who were attracted to his ideas, and who sought to keep his memory and teachings alive after he died. As time went by, legends began to develop as words and actions were attributed to Jesus which weren’t really his. The new Christians needed Jesus to speak to their own difficulties, so they put words in his mouth or invented miracles to address whatever the difficulty was.

The views aired on “From Jesus to Christ” are widespread among mainline scholars, and they are the views typically heard on college campuses and in the media. Two assumptions are made about the life of Jesus, and they are considered such common knowledge that they typically aren’t defended. They are: first, that the Gospels aren’t reliable historical documents; and second, that there was no real supernatural element in Jesus’ life and ministry. In fact, the belief that Jesus really didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead is part of the reason many scholars reject the Gospels as historical documents. One of the participants in the program, John Dominic Crossan, wrote in one of his books, “I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.” {2} If one begins with anti-supernatural assumptions, that will affect how one reads historical accounts such as those in the New Testament.

The question of the historical reliability of the Gospels is critical, because Christianity rests upon historical events. If the possibility of having true knowledge of these is gone, we have nothing upon which to base our beliefs. Without the historical events, Christianity becomes just another set of beliefs.

Since the PBS program focused on historical issues, we’ll concentrate our attention there and leave the matter of the supernatural for another time. But before making a case for the historicity of the Gospels, we should have some background information on the project of searching for the historical Jesus.

A Brief History of the Quest

The first indication that “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” might not be presenting historically orthodox views of Jesus is the title of the program itself. The viewer might have thought that “From Jesus to Christ” referred to what Peter said in Acts 2:36: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” The scholars on “From Jesus to Christ,” however, weren’t thinking of the position to which Jesus was exalted by God the Father; they were thinking about the position Jesus’ followers gave him through the development of the Christian religion. In other words, Jesus the man from Nazareth was transformed by his followers to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The result was a break between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

So, where did this idea come from?

In the last century and a half there have been three so-called “quests” for the historical Jesus. The first quest began in the 19th century when David Strauss published a book titled The Life of Jesus. Believing “that the Gospels could no longer be read straightforwardly as unvarnished historical records of what Jesus actually said and did,”{3} Strauss said that “unbiased historical research” needed to be done to find out who Jesus really was. Why did Strauss think we could no longer accept the Gospel narratives at face value? As philosopher Stephen Evans says, “The quick answer is simply ‘modernity.'” In the era of the Enlightenment, optimism about the power of human reason quickly led to the renunciation of the supernatural, so that reports of miracles and resurrections were now to be considered pre-scientific and mythological.{4} Since so much of the Gospels deals with the supernatural, the documents were no longer to be trusted historically.

In the 1940s a second quest began with students of German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. According to Bultmann, very little could be known about the historical Jesus, not much more than that he lived and died on a cross. Some of his students began a new effort to find the historical Jesus. This second quest continued until the early 70s.{5}

In the early 80s the Third Quest for the historical Jesus began with the rise of a new enthusiasm about the prospects of historical study.{6} New archaeological and manuscript data have greatly increased our knowledge of Jesus’ world. This quest seeks to know who Jesus was by understanding the world in which he lived.

These three quests have been based upon the idea that the Gospels are deficient in giving us a true picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, it’s tempting to just brush all this aside as liberal balderdash, but we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some good information is coming out of current studies.{7} However, not everything is to be accepted simply on the academic merits of participating scholars. In fact, the work of the Jesus Seminar, a splinter group that was represented in the program by at least three of the scholars, has drawn conclusions that even most liberal scholars reject. What we need to do is to look at the arguments presented and see if they hold water historically.

What follows, then, is a brief defense of the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Dating the Gospels

The assumption in “From Jesus to Christ” that the Gospels are not historically reliable records was very clear. Historian Paula Fredriksen said, “What [the Gospels] do is proclaim their individual author’s interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelist’s position” (FJTC, Pt. 2). Thus, these documents aren’t to be taken literally as historically true. There are at least three reasons many scholars believe this: a late date for writing; biased writers; and differences between the Gospels. Let’s look first at the question of dating.

Mainline New Testament scholars believe that the Synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark and Luke–were written after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in A.D. 70. Mark was written first, drawing on earlier written and oral traditions. Matthew and Luke drew from Mark and still other traditions. Even conservative scholars recognize an interdependency in the Synoptics. The crucial issue here is when the documents were written. A late date would give more time for legends to develop. Late dates for the Synoptics would also suggest that they weren’t really written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

However, although the dates aren’t firmly established, good arguments have been given for earlier dating which would strengthen the case for the historicity of the Gospels.

Craig Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, provides several arguments for early dates. For one thing, the early church fathers said that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written by the biblical characters we’re familiar with. “No competing traditions assigning these books to any other authors have survived,” he says, “if any ever existed.”{8} For example, in the late second century, one of the church fathers said Matthew composed his gospel before Paul was martyred under Nero in the 60s A.D. Blomberg wonders why the early believers would have attributed these writings to such unlikely candidates as Matthew, Mark and Luke if they were written by others. Mark and Luke weren’t apostles. And Matthew didn’t have an especially good reputation. “The apocryphal Gospels,” Blomberg continues, “consistently picked more well-known and exemplary figures for their fictitious authors–for example, Philip, Peter, James, Bartholomew or Mary.”{9}

Another argument Blomberg presents is built upon the date of the book of Acts. Acts ends abruptly with no record of what happened to Paul. Why would Luke have left out that important information if he wrote the book a decade or more after Paul’s death? And why would he make no mention of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70? The likely explanation for the abrupt ending of Acts is that it was written as the events unfolded–in other words, while Paul was still alive (Paul died in the mid-60s). If so, then Luke’s Gospel–as the first part of his two-part history–must have been written earlier. Since Luke drew from Mark, Mark must have been written earlier still.

A case can be made, then, that the Synoptic Gospels were written within about 30 years of Jesus’ death. This puts them close enough to the events that the facts they report could be corrected if wrong.{10}

The Gospel Writers and Historical Truth

Assuming that we have presented a plausible argument for early dates for the Synoptics, this still leaves unanswered the question whether the writers intended to write factual history.

On the program, Prof. Dominic Crossan suggested that we are mistaken in taking the Gospels factually because the writers didn’t intend us to do so. He says that the issue “is whether the people who told us the stories in the ancient world took them all literally, and now we’re so smart that we know to take them symbolically, or they all intended them symbolically and we’re so dumb that we’ve been taking them literally.” Crossan takes the second option. He says, “I think we have been misinterpreting these stories because the people who write [sic] them don’t seem the least bit worried about their diversity. We see the problem and then we want to insist that they’re literal. I think that we have misread the Scriptures, not that they have miswritten them” (FJTC, Pt. 2).

Thus, it is thought that Matthew inflated the importance of the Pharisees in his Gospel because they were so influential later in the first century when the book was written. Mark, they say, presented Jesus as the persecuted one because Mark’s community was suffering. And Luke embellished his narrative with “shipwrecks and exotic animals and exotic vegetation” (FJTC, Pt. 2) to make it more in keeping with the novelistic literature of his time.

While it’s surely true that each writer chose the events and sayings of Jesus that he thought were significant and which would be meaningful to his audience, this doesn’t mean the stories were made up.

Craig Blomberg offers some help here. First, he points to the opening statement in Luke’s Gospel where Luke declared his intent to “write an orderly account” of the things he had “carefully investigated . . . from the beginning” (Lu. 1:1-4).{11} Luke wanted to convey the truth.

But were Luke’s sources themselves concerned with accurately passing on what Jesus said and did? Some believe that, since the church thought Jesus was returning soon, they wouldn’t worry about accurate reporting. But first, it isn’t certain that Jesus’ followers thought he would return right away. And second, the Israelites before them had kept accurate records of the things prophets said, even though they were expecting at any time the coming Day of the Lord (Joel 2:1; Obad. 15; Hab. 2:3). The words of Jesus, who was considered greater than a prophet, would have held even greater value to early believers. They had a good reason for accurately remembering and reporting.

Prof. Blomberg also says that if the Gospel writers devised the words and works of Jesus to suit the needs of the early church, one might expect that they would have addressed the controversies that arose after Jesus ascended to heaven. The writers could have put in Jesus’ mouth answers to these issues. But this didn’t happen. Jesus didn’t answer the controversy over circumcision; he didn’t say whether Christians could divorce non-Christian spouses; he didn’t settle the matter of speaking in tongues. It seems that “the first Christians were interested in preserving the distinction between what happened during Jesus’ life and what was debated later in the churches.”

Thus, contrary to what Prof. Crossan said, we are not “dumb” to believe the Gospel writers intended to give us factual history.

Differences Between the Gospels

A crucial piece of evidence for the view taken by the scholars of “From Jesus to Christ” is that of the differences between what the Gospel writers report. The sequence of some events, and some of the things Jesus said, are recorded differently. This is said to indicate that the Gospels aren’t accurate historical documents.

Dominic Crossan gives as an example the accounts in Mark and John of the night before Jesus’ death. Mark has Jesus in agony over his coming death, while John shows a more victorious Jesus standing up against the troops which came to arrest him. Crossan concludes, “You have a Jesus out of control, almost, in Mark; a Jesus totally in control in John. . . . Neither of them are historical,” he says. “I don’t think either of them know [sic] exactly what happened” (FJTC, Pt. 2). Prof. Crossan didn’t mention the possibility that, while both writers told the truth, they only told part of the truth. The events recorded in the four Gospels can be put together to form a coherent account of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane.{12}

Blomberg argues that the Gospel writers were capable of remembering what Jesus said and did, but they weren’t concerned to record it all word for word.

On the one hand, the written word was at a premium in the ancient world, so oral transmission was the primary means of passing on knowledge. Thus, people learned to memorize a great deal of information. To illustrate, Blomberg notes that rote memorization was the method of education for Jewish boys, and rabbis were encouraged to memorize the entire Old Testament.{13}

On the other hand, as another conservative New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, points out, the tradition for reporting history in the Greco-Roman world involved a “concern for accuracy in reporting the gist of what had been said, even if the exact words were not remembered or recorded.” Ancient historians didn’t take it upon themselves to simply make up speeches and put them in others’ mouths.{14} They saw it as their duty to record what really happened or was said. As Craig Blomberg says, certain details could be omitted and the sequence of events could be changed “so long as the major events of the narratives and their significance were not altered” (italics his).{15}

This shouldn’t be alarming for those of us who accept the Gospels as God’s inspired Word. Even in our own experience we don’t, for example, question the word of an attentive and trustworthy person who summarizes a speech he heard. Likewise, if I tell you that our Mind Games director asked me today to participate in an upcoming conference, I’m telling you the truth of what he said, even if I’m not quoting him verbatim. We can’t avoid the fact that Jesus’ words and deeds are reported differently in the Gospels. Understanding the method of ancient historians, however, assures us that we have been given the truth about Jesus. Accepting Paul’s testimony that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) assures us that the Gospel writers gave us the truth exactly as God wanted it presented.

We have attempted in this essay to show that the Gospel writers could have written historical truth because they wrote soon enough after the events to insure against legend; that they intended to report what really happened; and that the differences between the Gospels do not make for a valid case against their historical truthfulness. There is no reason, then, short of theological bias, to reject what is in the Gospels, and instead search for the real historical Jesus elsewhere.

While those involved in the program “From Jesus to Christ” have benefited the church by their archeological finds and new information about the world in which Jesus lived, they have erred in rejecting the clear message of Jesus in the Gospels. The Christ of faith is the Jesus of history.


1. “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians,” April 7 (Part 1) and April 8 (Part 2), 1998, PBS (hereafter cited in text as FJTC). Transcript obtained from PBS web site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/.

2. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), 95.

3. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 9.

4. C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 13.

5. Witherington, The Jesus Quest, 11.

6. Ibid., 12.

7. Darrell L. Bock, New Testament professor, Dallas Theological Seminary. Telephone conversation with the author, April 15, 1998.

8. Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 28.

9. Ibid., 28-29.

10. Ibid., 29.

11. Ibid., 30. Material for the remainder of this section was drawn from Blomberg, 30-32.

12. See for example A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), 201-208.

14. Darrell L. Bock, “The Words of Jesus: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 79.

15. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start?” 32.

©1998 Probe Ministries.