Historical Validity of the Gospels
In response to the comments on the huge post by Brain2 that was removed, "anonymous" makes the comment:
Because Jesus didn’t write the bible. From his alleged words (of which no one could’ve possibly scribed in wax, ink, or stone as quickly as he would’ve spoken) to the Bible you have in your hands is at LEAST 5 generations of hearsay, interpretation, and the good old game of “telephone”. I was being generous. It’s probably more like 10th- or 12th- hand accounts, what you are reading. That is, unless you’ve read the original tablets, scribes, and scrolls… which would themselves be at least 3rd- or 4th- hand themselves."
This is a pretty standard spin for most atheists on the boards. It's not that we have failed to refute it many times. Although, we have allowed atheists to remove the bible from the debate. We have allowed them to speak of it as garbage so many times that they just think of it as almost non existent. For the practical purposes of documenting Jesus life and teachings we might as well be using Lady's Home Journal.
In the interest of rectifying this situation I propose the following approach by way of answering this comment. I suggest we re-double our efforts and begin refuting again the outrageous viewpoint immediately. Let's look again at what was said.
Because Jesus didn’t write the bible. From his alleged words (of which no one could’ve possibly scribed in wax, ink, or stone as quickly as he would’ve spoken) to the Bible you have in your hands is at LEAST 5 generations of hearsay
This is a ludicrous comment. First because it assumes that if Jesus didn't write the gospels then they can't be first hand or eye-witness material. Of course that is absurd, but the reasoning is "well, they couldn't recorded his words as fast as he spoke them." Of course that assumes that we have to have a verbatim account or it's totally worthless. If that is the case then no account in history is of any value. Eye-witnesses to Ceasar's life could not produce a verbatim account and thus their views are worthless. So we know nothing about anyone in the ancient world. From this humble premise the author comes to the sweeping conclusion that it was five generations. Of course that assumes a late date for the authorship and so forth.
There are three general points I would like to make in defending the historical validity of the Gospels.
(1) We do know who wrote the Gospels
(2) Oral traditions is not wild rumor.
(3) The gap between event and writing is not that great.
Authorship of the Gospels.
The argument often made by atheists that "we don't know who wrote them" is totally misguided and wrong-headed. They are still thinking in terms of an individual author. Scholars no longer see the Gospels as the product of one individual author. They view them as the products of communities. The redaction process involved a whole community of people, the community is now seen as the author. The Gospels are understood as having been produced by communities to which we give the names of the gospels; the Matthew community, the John (Johannine) community, the Mark community. These were communal schools. Much has been written of documentary interest on this point. Unlike many of my friends in the CADRE, I am content to accept the idea that the namesakes did not write the Gospels. That does not mean they were not produced by eye-witnesses, they were produced by whole communities full of eye-witnesses. The community was the author.
We can see the early aspects of the communal structure in Acts:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. 43 Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46 And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added those being saved to them.
In response to this argument atheists usually counter that the oral tradition is just a process of wild rumors. Even if there were eye-witnesses to something, we have no idea what they saw because it's all been exaggerated. They assume no attempt would have been made to control the flow information. This is a totally false assumption.
Jewish culture was an oral culture. Several other oral cultures can be seen around the world. We can still observe a few aspects of the bardic tradition in Ireland and in Turkey. In both cases bards memorize works of thousands of words, huge volumes such as Homer's Iliad, and they can recite them perfectly from start to finish at the drop of a hat. Now, of course, no one is suggesting that the Apostles memorized Jesus words verbatim as he spoke them. But the in the communal process the re-telling of the events of Jesus ministry over and over again would surely have been a topic of conversation. They lived in a culture where people did memorize the words of their teachers, and this is a proven fact. They moved in to communal living to study the Bible and develop their understanding of what happened and what it all meant. It's just absurd to think the dinner conversation would have been about sports or fishing or string beans.
The early community was filled witnesses who had seen Jesus and heard him speak. It was led by those whom Jesus trained extensively and they were with him every minute for three years. Why would they not make some attempt to organize the story and tell and it and retell it until everyone knew it by heart? Of course the witnesses would have ironed out any exaggerated rumors or falsehoods.
In the Handbook of Biblical Social Values (2000), Jerome Neyrey says,
The people in the bilbical world are dyadic. This means that individuals basically depend on others for thier sense of identity, for their understanding of their role and status in society, for clues to the duties and rights they have, and for indications of what is honorable and shameful behavior. Such people live in a world which is clearly and extensively ordered, a system which is well known to members of the group. Individuals quickly internalize this system and depend on it for needed clues to the way their world works. . . The tradition handed down by former members of the group is presumed valid and normative. . . Group orientation is clearly expressed in the importance given to authority. (p.94-7)
- Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics, and Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John.
- See also John Pilch, Jerome Neyrey, and David deSilva. The Context Group publications are listed here.
"And the stories about Jesus were nothing if not important. Even the Jesus Seminar admits that Jesus was an itinerant wonder-worker. Very well. Supposing a woman in a village is suddenly healed after a lengthy illness. Even today, even in a non-oral culture, the story of such an event would quickly spread among friends, neighbors and relatives, acquiring a fixed form within the first two or three retellings and retaining it, other things being equal, thereafter. In a culture where storytelling was and is an art-form, a memorable event such as this, especially if it were also seen as a sign that Israel's God was now at last at work to do what he had always promised, would be told at once in specific ways, told so as to be not just a celebration of a healing but also a celebration of the Kingdom of God. Events and stories of this order are community-forming, and the stories which form communities do not get freely or loosely adapted. One does not disturb the foundations of the house in which one is living."[B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998) p. 113-115.]
This brings us to the final point: the gap between event and writing is not that great. Now atheists are especially bad at this. In the nineteenth century a lot of skeptics assumed that the Gospels were written in the second century. Some skeptics still make this argument even though it has been totally disproved by textual and manuscript evidence. What is even more important to note is that the Manuscripts as we know them today were written between AD 70 and AD 95 or so. But this does not mean that this is when the material originated. Even though conventional wisdom says that Mark wrote first, that in no way means that Mark was the original author of the material.
The Material of the Gospels, all canonical Gospels and the Gospel of Peter draw upon a single narrative that existed at mid century. This proven by textual critics and scholars such as Helmutt Koester and John Dominic Crosson. Atheist poo poo the science of textual criticism but they are quick enough to embrace its validity when the Jesus Seminar uses it to disprove and slander the New Testament. Textual criticism is a science and the findings are well proven. The argument is based upon the readings found in latter texts. When the readings in texts such as the Diatesseron (AD 172) prove to be earlier than the canonical Gospels then we know that there were earlier versions that had once circulated.
The unknown Gospel of Egerton 2 was discovered in Egypt in 1935 exiting in two different manuscripts. The original editors found that the handwriting was that of a type from the late first early second century. In 1946 Goro Mayeda published a dissertation which argues for the independence of the readings from the canonical tradition. This has been debated since then and continues to be debated. Recently John B. Daniels in his Clairmont Dissertation argued for the independence of the readings from canonical sources. (John B. Daniels, The Egerton Gospel: It's place in Early Christianity, Dissertation Clairmont: CA 1990). Daniels states "Egerton's Account of Jesus healing the leaper Plausibly represents a separate tradition which did not undergo Markan redaction...Compositional choices suggest that...[the author] did not make use of the Gospel of John in canonical form." (Daniels, abstract). The unknown Gospel of Egerton 2 is remarkable still further in that it mixes Johannie language with Synoptic contexts and vice versa. which, "permits the conjecture that the author knew all and everyone of the canonical Gospels." (Joachim Jeremias, Unknown Sayings, "An Unknown Gospel with Johannine Elements" in Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson, NT Apocrypha 1.96). The Unknown Gospel preserves a tradition of Jesus healing the leper in Mark 1:40-44. (Note: The independent tradition in the Diatessaran was also of the healing of the leper). There is also a version of the statement about rendering unto Caesar. Space does not permit a detailed examination of the passages to really prove Koster's point here. But just to get a taste of the differences we are talking about:
Egerton 2: "And behold a leper came to him and said "Master Jesus, wandering with lepers and eating with them in the inn, I therefore became a leper. If you will I shall be clean. Accordingly the Lord said to him "I will, be clean" and immediately the leprosy left him.
Mark 1:40: And the leper came to him and beseeching him said '[master?] if you will you can make me clean. And he stretched out his hands and touched him and said "I will be clean" and immediately the leprosy left him.
Egerton 2: "tell us is it permitted to give to Kings what pertains to their rule? Tell us, should we give it? But Jesus knowing their intentions got angry and said "why do you call me teacher with your mouth and do not what I say"?
Mark 12:13-15: Is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not? But knowing their hypocrisy he said to them "why do you put me to the test, show me the coin?"
"There are two solutions that are equally improbable. It is unlikely that the pericope in Egerton 2 is an independent older tradition. It is equally hard to imagine that anyone would have deliberately composed this apophthegma by selecting sentences from three different Gospel writings. There are no analogies to this kind of Gospel composition because this pericope is neither a harmony of parallels from different Gospels, nor is it a florogelium. If one wants to uphold the hypothesis of dependence upon written Gospels one would have to assume that the pericope was written form memory....What is decisive is that there is nothing in the pericope that reveals redactional features of any of the Gospels that parallels appear. The author of Papyrus Egerton 2 uses independent building blocks of sayings for the composition of this dialogue none of the blocks have been formed by the literary activity of any previous Gospel writer. If Papyrus Egerton 2 is not dependent upon the Fourth Gospel it is an important witness to an earlier stage of development of the dialogues of the fourth Gospel....(Koester , 3.2 p.215)
(In Koester p.218) Koester writes, "John Dominic Crosson has gone further [than Denker]...he argues that this activity results in the composition of a literary document at a very early date i.e. in the middle of the First century CE" (Ibid). Said another way, the interpretation of Scripture as the formation of the passion narrative became an independent document, a ur-Gospel, as early as the middle of the first century!
"A third problem regarding Crossan's hypotheses is related specifically to the formation of reports about Jesus' trial, suffering death, burial, and resurrection. The account of the passion of Jesus must have developed quite eary because it is one and the same account that was used by Mark (and subsequently Matthew and Luke) and John and as will be argued below by the Gospel of Peter. However except for the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection in the various gospels cannot derive from a single source, they are independent of one another. Each of the authors of the extant gospels and of their secondary endings drew these epiphany stories from their own particular tradition, not form a common source." (Koester, p. 220)
"Studies of the passion narrative have shown that all gospels were dependent upon one and the same basic account of the suffering, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. But this account ended with the discovery of the empty tomb. With respect to the stories of Jesus' appearances, each of the extant gospels of the canon used different traditions of epiphany stories which they appended to the one canon passion account. This also applies to the Gospel of Peter. There is no reason to assume that any of the epiphany stories at the end of the gospel derive from the same source on which the account of the passion is based."(Ibid)
This means the events were circulating in writing about eighteen years or so after the events. The written testimony begins at a time when many eye witnesses would still be alive. It was the copying down of the oral tradition that killed that tradition. The original manuscript ceased to circulate when the material was incorporated into the standard Gospel format. This Explains why we do find fragments of Q or of the pre Markan passion narrative, or the Pre Markan redaction.
Of course we are not getting a word for word transcript of Jesus' words. But I don't know why we need one. We have the assurance of the early community and the chain of Apostolic succession that these teachings reflect the recollections of Jesus teachings and his deeds to the best of the witnesses abilities. They are not merely testified by two people (Mark and Luke were never said to be eye witnesses), but by whole communities.
For my complete essay on the authorship of the community see Community as Author on Doxa.
For my complete essay on written sources of the Pre Markan redaction see my essay The Gospel Behind the Gospels