Agnostics and atheists are frequently criticized for applying a level of skepticism to the writings of the New Testament that they would never apply to any other historical document. Christian apologists argue that unbelievers hold reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the texts that are out of all proportion to the reservations they have about other ancient historical events and writings. I believe that this criticism is for the most part utter malarkey. The problem is not that skeptics have greater reservations about the origins of Christianity than they have about other ancient events and writings. The fact is that these reservations are so completely unremarkable as applied to any other subject that no one ever bothers to mention them. It is only conservative Christians who work themselves into a tizzy over them.
Would a classicist utterly and completely dismiss the possibility that the works of Plato were not really written by a man named Plato? If it could be demonstrated that the works were actually written by a brilliant but unknown philosopher living twenty-five years after Plato died who used a more famous person’s name simply to get his works read, would it in any way make anyone feel hopeless about the security of ordinary knowledge? I doubt it. Given the scarcity of ancient documents, most thinking people would acknowledge the possibility that this could have happened. However, no one is concerned about this possibility because the cultural and historical significance of The Republic does not depend on whether it was actually written by the man we think of as the historical Plato. It is the power of its ideas that has influenced philosophers throughout the ages.
The books of the New Testament, on the other hand, present an entirely different situation for the conservative Christian because their theological significance is wholly dependent on who actually wrote them. We are told that one of the key criteria for the early church in deciding which books belonged in the New Testament canon was apostolicity. A specific group of historical people, the Apostles, had a special relationship with a specific historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, which causes conservative Christians to believe that they wrote under the special inspiration of God in a way that no other human being has ever written since. While the impact of The Merchant of Venice and Othello does not depend on whether they were written by Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare, the theological authority of the Gospel of Mark depends crucially on whether it was a factual account written by a companion of the Apostle Peter or simply a work of fiction by an unknown writer. No one in the world is bothered by the possibility that the words attributed to Socrates weren’t really spoken by the historical Socrates, but the beliefs of millions of Christians are completely false if the words attributed to Jesus weren’t really spoken by the historical Jesus.
I don’t think that my reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the early texts are any greater than those that most scholars have about the transmission of other ancient texts. In fact, I doubt that they are any greater than the reservations that conservative Christians have about ancient documents other than the Bible. However, the reservations that are utterly trivial with respect to any other ancient text become extremely important to conservative Christians because their beliefs and practices are contingent on the authority of their scriptures and that authority depends on that extent to which the words of scripture can be attributed to specific historical persons.