THE GOSPELS AND THEIR SOURCES

Having established to his satisfaction that the texts that make up early christian literature is on par with any other sort of literature, Bart Ehrman delves into The Gospels, meaning the four canonical narratives about Jesus Christ found in every New Testament. They are commonly referred to by the names The Gospel According to Matthew,  …to Mark, …to Luke, and …to John. These are not, of course, the actual names of the authors, as they are generally thought to be the work of now unknown authors and at some point attributed to persons bearing those names.

Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their authors’ biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect of Judea…

This opening section will not be convincing to naysayers, for reasons I will explain, but we need to start somewhere, and the place to start is with the surviving witnesses we have in hand.

I’m already on record as being somewhat skeptical of treating literature of every genre as equally good sources of history. But in this section quoted above I am interested in the notion of these narratives as ‘witnesses’ which on the face of it might imply more to the average reader than what can be safely claimed. After all, very few in the field of bible studies assert that these are accounts written by persons who have seen Jesus in life, or heard him speak any words. These are generally thought to be written some decades after anyone meeting the basic criteria of ‘the historical Jesus’ must have died.

If the Gospel of Mark (hereafter gMark) was written as early as 70 AD, this would be about 40 years after Jesus is thought to have died. Well within the realm of possibility of a surviving witness to recount their eyewitness testimony. However it does not seem many scholars conclude the author of gMark was himself an eyewitness, that at best he is recounting stories in circulation at the time of the composition of the narrative. Therefore he is at best a ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus. and not a witness to Jesus himself.

It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories about Jesus… Some mythicists – as we will see in chapter 7 – have taken this critical conclusion to a faulty end to argue that all of our Gospel accounts (even John, which has very little to do with Mark) ultimately go back to Mark so that we have only one source, not multiple sources, for the life of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nothing? For now let us be content to wait until chapter 7 to discover whether the other narratives are independent or dependent on gMark. Suffice to say that for now let us see how Ehrman develops his theme of each of the four canonical Jesus narratives as being independent sources.

Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death… The Gospel of John is sometimes described as the ‘maverick Gospel” because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Prior to the narrative leading up to Jesus’s death, most of the stories in John are found only in John, whereas John does not include most of the stories found in the other three Gospels. And when they do share the same stories, John tells them in such a different way that he does not appear  to have received his accounts from any or all of them.

Now Ehrman’s dating of these narratives seems to be as follows:

  • gMark 70 AD
  • gMatthew  80 – 85 AD
  • gLuke 80- 85 AD
  • gJohn 90 – 95 AD

 

So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus’s life and death…

Aside from these four there are others which Ehrman includes as independent accounts (because they were not considered to be ‘canonical’ they are not included in most bibles and are thus lesser known to the general public). He includes:

  • The Gospel of Thomas 110 – 120 AD
  • The Gospel of Peter (fragmentary,date unknown)
  • Papyrus Egerton 2 (fragmentary,date unknown)

To bring the independent witnesses up to lucky seven.

There are, of course, lots of other Gospels, some forty or so, down to the early Middle Ages, that are not found in the New Testament. These include narratives of Jesus as a newborn, and as a young child, where he uses his miraculous powers sometimes for mischief and sometimes for good; narratives of his public ministry; narratives of his death and resurrection.

It does appear to be the case there was quite a cottage industry in composing stories about Jesus. And this does not include narratives that did not survive into our own day, or that remain to be discovered.

But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive… For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.

Quite unusual, indeed.

One might say unprecedented.

This prompts me to wonder why it might be that so many persons felt compelled to write their own versions of a biography of this Jesus, people so far removed in time from the events, so remote in geography and culture from the vanished world of Judea when this Christ is supposed to have lived? It is quite the literary phenomenon.

 

######

 

Let us leave the argument here.

To recap: The mentions of Jesus or Christ in secular and Jewish sources have been discounted as unhelpful in establishing the existence of a real man – an ‘historical Jesus’ – underneath the mythology of the Jesus of Faith that christians worshiped.

But the accounts of christians themselves bear some sort of ‘witness’ to stories about Jesus, and there are at least seven independent sources that may provide the evidence needed.

 

Advertisements

THE GOSPELS AS HISTORICAL SOURCES?

I must admit, it has been hard to continue reading Ehrman’s book as it’s of the kind where one cannot long resist the temptation to throw it down in disgust. This reputed scholar exhibits so many failures of logic that it is difficult to take him or his arguments seriously. One wonders whether he really believes as he writes or if he’s merely cynical – and which of these is the worse?

Chapter Three of Did Jesus Exist? begins with the assertion that Ehrman’s critics are mistaken when they assert that his work is needlessly hostile to ‘the Bible’ and/or merely repeating that which is already well known. Alleged hostility to ‘the Bible’ is much the same as far as I am concerned as allegations that one is ‘anti-christian’ – ultimately meaningless attacks on one’s motives without regard to the verity of the evidence and arguments. It’s interesting that Ehrman makes out the ‘saying nothing new’ critique as some sort of ad hominem attack when Ehrman has no  reluctance to compare some of his critics to ‘Holocaust deniers’ and other popular bugbears. Ehrman should look to the log in his own eye before attempting to pick the dust from anyone else’s eye…

With that introductory salvo we are treated to a preliminary comment on using the gospels (presumably the four canonical narratives included in present day versions of ‘the Bible’ and not the many other ‘gospel narratives’ produced in the same time period) as historical sources.

As I will try to show momentarily, the Gospels, their sources, and the oral tradition that lie behind them combine to make a convincing case that Jesus really existed.

One admirable trait Ehrman possesses as a writer is the ability to pack a great number of claims into a short and pithy remark, such that one is apt to see that a great many assumptions lie behind a sentence of a few well-chosen words. Here we are treated to three distinct entities, each of which is somewhat problematic, as if they are givens that we should accept without examination.

Firstly, let us consider ‘the Gospels’ – what we have is a plethora of versions of each ‘gospel’ – notably in the case of the Gospel of Mark there are ‘long’ and ‘short’ versions.This is due in part to the necessity of copying books by hand in earlier ages, but also to the opportunity provided by that necessity to alter the text as it is passed through different hands from one generation to the next. For the ordinary reader we are presented with what is considered the ‘best’ version (much like we find in reading Shakespeare’s plays) but no version is necessarily definitive as there is no original with which to compare extant copies. When interpretation can depend on even a single word such difficulties in transmission must always be kept in mind.

We then are presented with the assertion of the ‘sources’ for the various gospel narratives, and here  it is fitting to remember that there is but one ‘original’ and several derivatives: in this case the ‘Gospel of Mark’ is the original and the other three are almost universally considered to be dependent on that work. What do we know about ‘sources’ for this story? Virtually nothing, except that it seems to be influenced by several sources: the translation of the scriptures into the Greek language known as the Septuagint and Greek literature (especially Homer, who for the Greeks of this time was as Shakespeare is to speakers of English).

[As a side note I find it interesting that there is not to my knowledge any significant early christian literature in Aramaic (or Syriac) which is supposed to be the native language of Jesus and his disciples. When it came time to proselytize in the land of Jesus’s alleged homeland Greek texts were imported and needed to be translated into the local language! Imagine if all our ‘originals’ of Shakespeare’s plays were in Italian!]

The third claim is of an ‘oral tradition’ supposed to lie behind the extant versions of the gospel narratives that have survived to the present day. Our confidence in being able to say much (if anything) about an alleged ‘oral tradition’ claimed to be a source for any gospel narrative can only be strained at best.

So of the three claimed entities, we have only direct evidence of the written gospel narratives (themselves at times garbled, added to, and edited), inferred evidence of literary influences ( the Septuagint, the works of Homer and Greek novels, and the theoretical ‘Q’ document), and only theories about supposed ‘oral traditions’.

It is not that one can simply accept everything found in the Gospels as historically accurate… This historical information must be teased out by careful, critical analysis.

I agree that there may be historical information found in literature, There may well be historical information in the ‘Gospels’ just as there may be in the Homeric epics or in the works of Sophocles or in the mysteries of Mithras. One would be well advised to proceed with caution with such dubious materials.

Ehrman, it would appear, is unable to distinguish between different genres of literature: a poem, a play, a history, a military report, a hagiography, and a satire are all alike:

Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible… whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible – whether you believe in them or not, whether you consider them inspired or not – they are still books.

Actually, it would appear it is the other way around: the ‘gospel narratives’ are included in the collection known as ‘the Bible’ because they are a distinct kind of literature derivative of the sorts of stories found in the ‘Old Testament’: tales like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his technicolor coat, Moses and the generic pharaoh, Samson and Delilah, Job, Jonah, Judith, Daniel, etc. It’s rather disingenuous of Ehman to complain about how poorly Jesus is treated without mention of the august company this figure of biblical literature shares with these other figures of ‘history’.

Ehrman tries again to link the fundamentalist christian view of the bible with that of skeptics, that we should neither consider blatantly religious tracts as above criticism nor should we treat them with any special care due to their polemical nature. Apparently we should consider the ‘historical Noah’ on a level playing field with the ‘historical Heracles’ and the ‘historical Augustus’. Yes, perhaps there can be extant literature about each figure, and this literature can be supposed to be based on previous literature, and even a certain ‘oral tradition’ can be imputed to each. But can it be honestly argued that there is no difference between the literary evidence we find for these persons?

My impression is that Ehrman goes a bit far in claiming that he is merely following any ‘consensus’ among historians that all literature is equally indistinguishable as sources for history, or that it is ‘common knowledge among scholars’ that stories about Noah are no different than stories about Julius Caesar. On the other hand, if this is indeed the attitude of ‘scholars’ known to Ehrman this notion should serve as a big red flag that these ‘scholars’ are out of touch with reality. It’s as if one asked today’s readers to consider the New York Times, The Onion, and The Watchtower magazine as equally good sources of information. Absurd!

 

#####

 

At this point I must point out that the questions raised by Ehrman’s claims are more numerous than can easily be enumerated. This is what makes it a long and difficult slog for anyone the least bit familiar with the territory. I returned to this book because I learned there are some interesting claims made in this latter part, but it is painful to read.

This will be the place to let this rest for now – I realize I have only begun Ehrman’s foray into the Bible as his last, best source for evidence of a real man behind the Jesus represented in the Bible.