The Claim: Early Christians did not check for truth when they shared information about Jesus.
Early recruits to the young religion of Christianity might have been especially eager to pass on stories and rumors about Jesus, without checking them for truth.
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 25). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I would like to evaluate this assertion from a few different perspectives.
Is This an Argument Against the Validity of the New Testament?
First, what is Dawkins’s point in making this assertion? We must keep in mind that this is an assertion. He has no evidence or argumentation to support his claim. The crux of this observation is the word “might.” He has no proof, but his imagination allows him to think that this could possibly be the case.
It appears Dawkins is trying to undermine the validity of what the early converts to Christianity were passing on to others. These people, to his mind, were so excited and thrilled at the news about Jesus that they immediately threw off all reason and began repeating to others whatever they heard.
Let us assume for a moment that this is true. The original disciples begin telling others about Jesus and what he had done, and these converts start to tell others without verifying the information. Does this mean that what they are saying is not true? Not at all. Something does not become true after it is verified; verification shows that it has been true all along. If I were to tell you there is a small pond outside of the window where I am writing, that statement is either true or false irrespective of whether or not you drive to where I am to verify it for yourself. In other words, investigation has no bearing on the veracity of a claim. Instead, it reveals what is already true.
I merely point this out, as grating as it may be, so that it is understood that Dawkins’s statement is not a de facto refutation of the reliability of the Gospel. The early converts could be repeating unverified truth claims that were true.
Does this Affect How We View the Gospels?
Carrying on with our assumption that the early converts repeated the stories without checking for truth, does this affect the way we view the Gospels?
Not at all.
Investigation may have no bearing on veracity, but it does affect the trustworthiness of testimony.
For this hypothetical to affect how we view the Gospel, our Gospel accounts would have to be written by these early converts who shared information about Jesus that may or may not have been verified. However, they weren’t. Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) were written by eyewitnesses (Mark was written by the interpreter of an eyewitness, most likely by dictation). Eyewitness accounts are fundamentally different from those of early Christians spreading what they had heard from others amongst themselves. Regardless of whatever others may have said, an account of an eyewitness would be deemed more credible, especially if corroborated with the accounts of other eyewitnesses.
Recently, there has been an investigation going on in the United States. There was a person who wrote a report about events to which they were not a witness. They were repeating stories they had heard from other persons, most of whom were not witnesses themselves. As a part of the investigation, a panel brought in people who were witnesses who confirmed what was in the first person’s report. The fact that the first person did not have first-hand knowledge no longer mattered as their story was backed up by first-hand accounts. This situation is what we have in three of the Gospels.
In the Gospel of Luke, Luke tells us he is not an eyewitness. However, he also tells us that he has consulted both written sources and eyewitness testimony to confirm the reports of the apostles. This undermines Dawkins’s assertion that these stories were passed on without verification. We also see Luke in the book of Acts traveling with Paul and being connected with other disciples while journeying with him. This would have given Luke ample opportunity to speak with the disciples who were eyewitnesses to verify their stories with the other information he had gathered.
Does It Make Sense that these Converts Would Pass on Stories without Verification?
Let us move on from assuming that the early converts would have passed on these stories without verification and examine whether or not the claim itself makes sense.
First, Judaism was not a religion without skepticism. It was highly organized, including scholars, rabbis, scribes, lawyers of the law, and teachers. For all the words you can use to describe Judaism, unexamined is not one of them. Because of this, we know that a Jewish convert would not be careless with his or her beliefs. Let’s not forget that it was the Jewish people who brought Jesus to Pilate to be crucified. They were not ones to be very welcoming of contrary beliefs.
Additionally, there was an enormous cost, societally and personally, to converting to Christianity. It is hard to imagine finding many willing and credulous persons to convert when the leader of the religion just had one of the most public and well-known executions known to man. And the disciples used his execution as an instrumental point when preaching their message to others! How would you feel if someone was in the street preaching to a crowd, “A man came and told us marvelous things. Then the leaders of your people and the occupying forces crucified him. Now there is also a man who has been given authority to hunt us down and kill us one by one! Converting also means that your family will probably disown you! Who’s in!?” I highly doubt you would be willing to convert without investigating these claims as true - and maybe not even then. What motivation would you have?
I was once speaking with a student at the University of Sussex who told me that he believed the disciples made up the whole story about Jesus in order to get rich like many of the preachers today. My friend politely asked him where he got this idea from because no one who has spent any time at all studying the history of Christianity could come to this conclusion. Dawkins’s claim that early converts were willing to risk their lives for unconfirmed claims is not entirely on par with such a claim. But, because of its disregard of the culture of the early Christians and costs of following Jesus, it is close.