Eyewitness Control of the Gospel Tradition: A Game of Whack-a-Mole?

In their defense of the historical reliability of the Gospel traditions evangelical scholars often appeal to the controlling influence of the eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry: the twelve apostles, other followers of Jesus such as the Seventy, the women who ministered to him, who were present at his crucifixion and who discovered the empty tomb, sympathizers among the Jewish (such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) and Roman (the centurion whose servant Jesus healed) authorities, Simon of Cyrene and many others. The argument is that these witnesses would not have allowed false rumors and legends to become embedded within the traditions, and they ensured that these traditions were handed down accurately in missionary, catechetical and liturgical contexts.

To many skeptics this argument seems unconvincing. Leaving aside the question of whether the eyewitnesses themselves were involved in fabricating stories about Jesus, how could they possibly quelch all false rumors about Jesus wherever they arose? They would have had enough trouble keeping track of all the stories circulating about Jesus in Palestine itself, let alone throughout the Greco-Roman world. David Friedrich Strauss put the problem as follows:

"[It is] very incomprehensible, replies the objector, how in Palestine itself, and at a time when so many eyewitnesses yet lived, unhistorical legends and even collections of them should have formed...[B]ut who informs us that they [the legends] must necessarily have taken root in that particular district of Palestine where Jesus tarried longest, and where his actual history was well known? And with respect to eye-witnesses, if by these we are to understand the apostles, it is to ascribe to them absolute ubiquity, to represent them as present here and there, weeding out all the unhistorical legends." (D.F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, quoted in Kris Komarnitsky, Doubting Jesus' Resurrection, p.150, emphasis mine)

We should first note that the apostles were not the only eye-witnesses to Jesus, as I mentioned above. They were people from all social strata and all walks of life. Nevertheless Strauss is right to focus on the apostles, because as the ones chosen specially by Jesus and given authority to preach and heal in His name, as well as to proclaim the message of the Resurrection, they would be the ones most responsible for formulating the 'official' story and attempting to ensure its reliable transmission. The picture Strauss would have us imagine (and reject as completely implausible) is that of apostles desperately running from place to place, contradicting each and every false story being told on every street corner and in every house, as if they were playing a losing game of whack-a-mole. Is it really plausible to imagine that the apostles were successful in making sure legends and false rumors about Jesus didn't take root in the tradition, given the sheer geographical and logistical challenges to such an undertaking?

I think three points suffice to answer the question in the affirmative:

1) There should be no doubt that, regardless of their ability to do so, the apostles were intensely interested in making sure people got Jesus' story right. Paul reacted forcefully to the news that his Galatian converts were turning to "a different gospel" (Gal 1:6-9), and chided the Corinthians for doubting such a crucial component of the Christian faith as belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12). From the other side, the intense controversy with which Paul's preaching was met and the challenges to his apostolic authority (implicit, for example, in 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8) indicate that the 'pillars' of the Jerusalem church were also concerned that self-described apostles' claims to speak for Jesus were in line with the official teaching (a concern that Paul shared: "Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain," Gal 2:2).

2) Given that the apostles were concerned to keep the official story intact, all the evidence suggests that they had extraordinarily efficient communication networks to accomplish this. Paul had coworkers constantly going back and forth between his churches, updating him on their condition and any controversies that had arisen (i.e. 1 Thess 3:2, Phil 2:19, 25, etc.). The news reached the Judean churches fairly rapidly that their former persecutor was now preaching the faith he had tried to destroy (Gal 1:22-23). The 'circumcision party' from Jerusalem had no trouble penetrating as far as Antioch to disrupt Paul's missionary work, and apparently also Peter's conciliatory gestures toward the Gentile believers (Gal 2:11-13). Overall the controversy over whether the Gentile converts should be required to keep the law shows spectacularly how much news travelled to and from the various Christian churches, and how quickly. Given that Paul became very easily aware of his Galatian converts turning to a different gospel, we should imagine generally that the other apostles would also have easily become aware of any major changes in the Jesus story circulating in any of the major Christian missionary hubs.

3) Even granting these two points, we should also concede that the apostles could not be everywhere at once, and they could not stop all legendary stories about Jesus being passed around casually on street corners, or in believers' households, or even preached by enthusiastic but ill-informed missionaries. The crucial point, however, is that, for our purposes as historical investigators of Christian origins, they didn't need to. As long as the apostles got the story straight in certain important contexts, it didn't really matter what the 'word on the street' was about Jesus. As I mentioned briefly above, these contexts would include evangelism (the initial preaching of the Gospel to new audiences, whether in synagogues, homes or the marketplace; an important example is that of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28; Apollos had accurate but incomplete knowledge of Jesus, which Priscilla and Aquila made sure to fill out), catechism (the initial training of new converts) and liturgy (the ritual reminiscence of Jesus' words and deeds during the Eucharist and other occasions; see for example Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66-67).

Maybe even in these contexts they weren't entirely successful. After all, there were many heterodox Christian communities with their own gospels based on their own evangelistic and liturgical traditions. The only issue which concerns us is, was the Jesus tradition accurately preserved along the currents that fed into our canonical Gospels? Here it is important to remember that despite some skeptics' claims, the evangelists did not just write down whatever they heard on the street. The evangelists clearly devoted meticulous effort to the theological and pastoral presentation of their material, and we should imagine this effort being extended to the research they did in the traditions their communities had inherited. True, the average believer may have been content to accept whatever she heard about Jesus from friends or passers-through, but given the above evidence of the apostles' interest in making sure the official story was passed on and the efficient communication networks they had available we can be fairly confident that for the careful investigator the truth was there to be found.

So the apostles did not have to squash every false rumor about Jesus wherever it sprang up in order for the tradition to be reliably preserved. It only had to be preserved in certain important contexts, so that when the evangelists put pen to paper they had access to accounts of Jesus' life and teachings that went back to the faithful testimony of those "who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." (Luke 1:2)


steve said…
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May a non-evangelical believer offer some comments in a spirit of conversation: certainly not in one of disputation.

The evangelical stance –taken from Luther’s 'sola scriptura' - will always seek to maximise the literal historical accuracy of the biblical records. This presupposition needs to be acknowledged. But it could be misplaced.

Those of us believers who are not evangelical, will often adopt a more relaxed attitude. For us, any weakening of the gospels’ “accuracy” will not be threatening: we have not made so heavy an investment in it. Yet we learn from evangelicals to “take the scriptures seriously”, and this is a supreme lesson, which I hope we learn from. I know that evangelicals, for their part, adopt a reasoning and rational approach also. It is perhaps more a matter of emphasis rather than of absolute difference.

We non-evangelicals usually take it that the basics of the gospel accounts are accurate, since the basic outlines correspond most of the time, and the various sayings etc of Jesus correspond in general (though not in detail).

Theologically speaking, we take it that the bible is trustworthy in a spiritual, religious, theological sense, and reflects (but is not identical to) God’s voice, or word, as He spoke in particular contexts 2,000 or more years ago. We believe that God will not mislead His people. These are lessons which we thank evangelicals for keeping before our minds. But we do not move on from that to assume that literal, scientific or historical accuracy is to be looked for in every case. If we are interested to know which parts are historically factual, then it has to be on a case-by-case basis.

The article invokes eye-witnesses. No doubt eye-witnesses underly the gospel records. Though, it is possible, to my mind, that some gospel passages were generated within the faith of the first believers (eg emphasis on Jesus as "messiah" or Christ, virgin birth, the empty tomb, the “physical” resurrection as implied in Luke and John). But that does not mean that I reject these sections as worthless or as teaching us nothing. Far from it. I do not disregard them for faith or preaching. But I cannot assume that they are factually accurate in a literal historical sense.

The input of individuals and groups of eye-witnesses cannot be deined. But I suggest we must start not from possible eye-witnesses and what we think they might or might not have done, but from the texts themselves. And here we find that the differences and particular emphases in each gospel suggest strongly that eye-witness input has undergone creative process within the first Christian communities. Accuracy is not enough. Even if everything in the gospels could be proved from contemporary evidence, this would not make the gospels ‘gospel’ – good news. I am not even sure that strict historical accuracy is even necessary for religious or gospel truth (my examples of virgin birth, empty tomb, "messiah" etc).

Nor do I believe, from my own long and close living with the gospels, that literal historical accuracy was paramount in the minds of the first believers. The differences / incompatibilities between the four gospels suggest strongly that this was not uppermost in their minds, otherwise we might expect that discrepancies would have been ironed out at a very early stage. The same can of course be said about the OT (witness the way Chronicles completely re-writes 2 Samuel & Kings).

Sorry if this seems over-stated: perhaps I am seeing problems where you do not see any.
Anonymous said…

I agree with some of your points. Though as an evangelical I have great respect for scripture, as a bare minimum for my faith I only need the Gospels to be accurate in general outline, that they reliably preserve the gist of Jesus' teaching and testify to the spiritual transformation wrought by Jesus' resurrection. I also agree that the early Christians were not as concerned as we are about some historical details. Clearly chronology was not high on their list of priorities, for example.

That said, I do have a threshold of historicity which I feel is crucial, and the empty tomb is included within it, as is the physical resurrection. These events are what decisively set Jesus apart from other religious figures as God's unique self-revelation. I think there is a good strictly historical case for the empty tomb, and that combined with the resurrection appearances attested by Paul and the Gospels these provide a solid, if not strictly demonstrative, basis for accepting the physical resurrection as an historical event (I do realize there are difficulties with that adjective 'historical'). For me the loss of the historicity of the empty tomb would be pretty devastating, though I mind find a way to live with it as a Christian.

But I also appreciate the limits of historical arguments. My comments about the eye-witnesses are not meant as a defense of inerrancy, only of the general historical reliability of (at least some of) the Gospel accounts.
May a non-evangelical believer offer some comments in a spirit of conversation: certainly not in one of disputation.

Hey I'm a non evangelical believer and I started the CADRE!

Anonymous said…
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he argues that the apologist has to show that Jesus rose from the dead supernaturally. In other words we have to show that he didn't rise naturally. What?

I don't know man. That's a pretty big stretch to show that. all my freinds who have risen from the dead did it naturally, nothing to it they say.
Anonymous said…
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Spencer said…
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agree that the argument probably doesn't work, but at the moment, I can't quite figure out how to reject it.

It's silly. by definition raising from the dead is supernatural. The only issue is can we prove the circumstances are such that we can conclude that he really rose. "how did hte body get out of the tomb" is a totally different question.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Layman said…
Sorry guys, but anonymous posters linking back to Debunking Christianity comes across like an attempt to hijack the thread or fish for hits. Since DC doesn't even let us comment over there, I'm not inclined to be charitable to such efforts over here.
can't you just take out the links?

anyway, that's ok.

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