Reliability of the Gospels III

Reliability of the Gospels (III)

Phase 2: Defense of Controlled Oral History

From the Mouth of the Eyewitness to the Pen of the Gospel Writer

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

MARK 16:15

The experiences of the Apostles and other eyewitnesses were meant to be told. Their memories of Jesus were never intended to remain as just memories; Jesus commanded that they be told. Thus, it is no surprise that we find the Apostles immediately preaching and teaching once they witness the risen Savior.

Skeptical Claim: The Oral Period Was Like the “Telephone Game”

There was a period of time, prior to the Gospel accounts being written down, that the stories of Jesus were shared orally. This is the next phase of testimony transmission – the oral period.

Skeptics like to claim that the eyewitness testimony of Jesus must have been hopelessly distorted through this period.  Why do they say this?  They say this because they believe the eyewitness testimony during the oral period was passed on like the telephone game.

You know how this game works.  Someone whispers a message in a person’s ear who then whispers what they heard in another person’s ear.  This message is passed on from one person to the next until it reaches the last person in the chain.  That individual shares the message they heard, which in most cases is radically different from the message the first person shared.

When skeptics envision the period of time before the Gospel accounts were written, they appeal to this telephone game analogy to try and make the case that the stories we end up with in the Gospels have evolved away from those the eyewitnesses first shared.

If this were the way in which the eyewitness testimony was shared, we might have grounds to doubt the reliability of the Gospels.  However, the telephone game analogy does not describe what history tells us about the oral period in the least.  To show that, we will deal with a couple faulty assumptions that are operating behind this skeptical claim:

Faulty Assumption #1: Eyewitnesses Did Not Have a Significant Influence in the Oral Period

The first faulty assumption behind the claim that the Jesus stories were passed along like the telephone game is that the eyewitnesses did not have a significant influence in the oral period.

When a group of people play the telephone game, the person who first told the message is not allowed to follow the message down the chain to ensure it is told and retold correctly.  The rules of the game make it such that the message evolves without the person who first told the message.  This is the assumption that skeptics make about the oral period.

They assume that once the eyewitnesses told their experiences they left the scene and let their testimony evolve without them.  Contrary to this assumption, the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection remained an enduring and authoritative influence throughout the oral period.  The Apostle Paul appeals to such a body of eyewitnesses in order to substantiate his summary of the gospel:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.


Paul’s appeal is significant.  He is telling his Corinthian readers in ~AD 55 that they can consult any of more than 500 eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, indicating they have an enduring testimony and influence in the church at this time.

It was from among these eyewitnesses that the very foundation of the church was built (Eph. 2:20).  For the Apostles saw that being an eyewitness of – not just the Resurrection of Jesus, but – the entire ministry of Jesus was vital in order to occupy the office of Apostle.  See what they were looking for in a resumè when they were deliberating on who would replace Judas as one of the Twelve:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his Resurrection.

ACTS 1:21-22

The Apostles did not share their experiences and then leave.  They remained an integral part of the Christian community throughout the oral period all the way to the time the Gospels were penned.  The Gospels themselves claim to be the authoritative bodies of eyewitness testimony.  

How do they tell us this?  We are now going to turn to each of the Gospels and see where the authors indicate that the Apostles supplied them with their eyewitness testimony.  In this post, we will just look at the Gospel of Mark.  We consider the other Gospels in the next post.

The Gospel of Mark as Peter’s Testimony

The Gospel of Mark is chronologically the first Gospel to be in circulation in the Christian community.  The author, Mark, tells us in a variety of different ways that his Gospel is the product of the Apostle Peter:

  1. New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, points out that Mark first tells us this by using a literary device known as an inclusio.An inclusio is where a word or phrase is emphasized at the beginning and end of a Passage that the author is seeking to bracket off or highlight for his reader.  Ancient authors didn’t have highlighters or underline their letters; nor did they embolden or italicize their print.  The use of repetition and inclusio is how they got their reader’s attention.In the Gospel of Mark, Peter’s name is emphasized at the beginning (Mk. 1:16-18) and end (Mk. 16:7) of his Gospel.  Peter is the first and last Apostle mentioned.  In the first reference, Mark unnecessarily repeats Peter’s name, “Simon.”  This is an intentional move to draw his reader’s gaze to this individual.  Likewise, in chapter 16, Peter’s name is also used unnecessarily in order to place emphasis on Peter.
  2. The second way that Mark indicates that Peter is the source of his Gospel account is by the sheer number of times Peter’s name appears.  Mark references Peter more than a couple dozen times, far more than any other disciple in the Gospel.
  3. Thirdly, Mark often hones his reader onto the perspective of the disciples (Mk. 14:32), then more narrowly onto the perspective of the “inner circle” (Peter, James, and John), and at times the perspective of the story is narrowed all the way down to Peter’s sole perspective.  This is seen, for example, in Mark 14:66-72 during the scene of Peter’s denial of Jesus.
  4. A final way in which we can see Peter supplying his testimony to Mark is by the fact that Mark’s Gospel gives us the most dynamic and personal representation of Peter.  I love the way Bauckham summarizes Mark’s depiction of Peter:

Mark’s distinctive characterization of Peter, not surprisingly, does not employ direct character description, but constructs Peter’s character by means of his acts and words. Peter is a man of initiative (1:36) and self-confidence, the one who speaks out when others do not (8:29, 32; 10:28), sometimes with insight (8:29), sometimes altogether too impulsively (8:32; 9:5-6). Even in these latter cases, Peter means well and shows his concern for Jesus even as he misunderstands him. In his enthusiastic and self-confident loyalty to Jesus he thinks himself second to none (14:29-31). He does display more courage in his loyalty to Jesus than the others do (14:50, 54), but loyalty and fear are at odds in his motivation. In his fearful, self-interested denial of Jesus he slips from a relatively mild dissociation from Jesus to the most extreme repudiation (14:68-71). But his loyalty and love for Jesus regain their primacy and express themselves in emotional remorse (14:72).


How does Mark know Peter’s emotions and motivations so well?  Could it be that it was Peter himself who shared the stories of Jesus from his own perspective?  It is certainly not unlikely given the fact that Mark assisted the Apostles in their ministries (Acts 12:24; 15:39; 2 Timothy 4:11).  At some point, he joined Peter and served alongside him, as Peter himself testifies (1 Peter 5:12-13).

Sources outside the Bible confirm this and explain that while Peter was pastoring the church in Rome, Mark served as his interpreter/translator.  For example, consider the writings of an early Christian pastor, Papias (~AD 70 – 155):

The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory…


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