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.

 

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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.

 

Why question Jesus?

I think I left my post at a bit of a cliff-hanger: Bart Ehrman admitting it never occurred to him, or any of his colleagues, to question whether the subject of much of their reading, writing, debating – namely Jesus – ever really existed outside of the literature.

Ehrman puts it thus in his blog:

…even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise.

 

http://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-exist-as-part-one/

 

Which harks back to my previous post – no one in a hundred or more years thought to give the question of the existence of Jesus serious consideration? That’s just very intriguing to me. Scholars today believe Jesus lived because they were taught it, and their teachers were taught by their teachers, and so on into the mists of time. 

You can begin to feel the dead weight of tradition here. No one questions the basic assumption upon which the whole edifice stands. It never even occurs to them!

Now, of course ‘historical Jesus’ studies is just that – trying to discover what a Jesus who lived outside of literature might be like. And over the decades many novel interpretations are to be had. And I think one factor that contributes to this plethora of images of an ‘historical Jesus’ is how very little information there is.

Now Bart Ehrman complains that his work on the New Testament is sometimes ‘misused’ by mythicists to bolster their claims. Perhaps that happens – there’d have to be some specific examples.

But I think in a general way it is right to use the information that Ehrman publishes about the unreliability of the NT writings even if Ehrman disagrees with the conclusion. By way of analogy just because A invented fire to keep warm doesn’t mean fire is ‘invalid’ if it’s used by B to cook food.

Because many of the mutually contradictory versions of the ‘historical Jesus’ that come out with monotonous regularity use those very discredited writings to flesh out their biographies. We might not know what words Jesus used, but he probably taught this, or that, or something else entirely. Well, we can’t be sure any action Jesus took but this incident proves – no that didn’t happen but when Jesus – no that’s not right either.

Basically the things they agree on are the big three: there was a Jew called Jesus, he had followers, he was crucified. Everything else is rather sketchy.

But then, if there were Heracles historicists’ they’d probably agree on a similar short list: there was a Greek named Heracles, he was strong, suffered from anger issues. But nothing there really to indicate strongly that there was a specific Greek strongman upon whom the stories of Heracles were based.

 

Next – back to the text.

One blog I follow regularly is Vridar –

One blog I follow regularly is Vridar – a blog which explores the origins of christianity (among other things). I find this to be very informative and entertaining:

http://vridar.wordpress.com/

As a survivor of catholicism I seem to be drawn into debates about religion (especially christianity as that’s the religion that most impacts me personally, socially, and politically).

Not being a believer I suppose I should not waste my time on something which I don’t ‘believe in’ – but OTOH it seems I am still interested in it – how does something which I consider to be so wrong-headed get a grip on the minds of so many people?

Lately the controversy engaging me is the debate between ‘historicists’ and ‘mythicists’ on the origins of christianity: was the story of Jesus really based on a real person who became mythologized or simple a character of literature who became historicized? Ultimately I suppose it matters very little – even if there were an obscure preacher who was elevated to a god it is the legends that grew up around him it is only the ‘myth’ part which has had an impact on history. It is the ‘Son of God’ who matters – no one much cares what a run-of-the mill street-corner preacher might have said 2000 years ago.

But I do find it interesting to consider whether a real person is required to act as the catalyst for this religious movement. That’s why the debate is engaging – how do these cults spawn, metastasize, and spread.