Reliability of the Gospels V

Phase 3: Defense of Accurate Scribal Transcription

From the Pen of the Gospel Writer to the Manuscripts We Have Access to Today

In the past two posts, I demonstrated (biblically and extrabiblically) how the Apostles either wrote the Gospels or supplied their testimonies to the authors of the Gospels.

If we can defend the reliability of testimony transmission up to the point of the Gospels being written down, can we say that those Gospel “autographs” were then copied accurately?  In other words, are the manuscripts we have access to today accurate copies of that which the Apostles and their associates wrote?  Before we can go any further, we need to clarify a few terms:

Autograph
An “autograph” is the first final draft of a book.  Each book of the Bible had an autograph.  For example, Paul wrote Galatians with his own hand (Gal. 6:11).  That document he penned is called the “autograph.”  Likewise, when the Gospel writers wrote their final drafts of the Gospels, each of those documents are called the “autographs.”

Manuscript
A “manuscript” is a hand-written copy of the autograph or of another manuscript.  After the Gospel writers penned their autographs, scribes copied them by hand.  Each copy is referred to as a “manuscript.” 

Variant
A “variant” is a place of variation between two manuscripts.  This can be anything from a spelling differentiation to a total insertion or deletion of material.


Skeptical Claim: The Manuscripts Do Not Accurately Reflect the Autographs

Appealing to the reality of variants, skeptics claim that we cannot trust that the Gospel manuscripts accurately reflect the autographs.

This is a serious claim.  As Christians, we hold firmly to the doctrine of inspiration, that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).  When we speak of inspiration, we do not contend that the scribes who copied the autographs were inspired for they sometimes misspelled words and skipped lines (i.e. produced variants).  Instead, inspiration is with regards to the autographs of the biblical Texts.  Therefore, if the manuscripts do not accurately reflect the autographs then we do not have access to the inspired Word of God because the autographs have been lost to time and the only thing that remains is their copies (manuscripts).

However, we can rest assured that the Bibles we have today (as translated from the oldest manuscripts archaeology has unearthed) do indeed accurately reflect the autographs that the biblical authors penned.  We can show this by responding to two assumptions behind the skeptics’ claim above.


Faulty Assumption #1: Variants Affect the Theology & Praxis of the Church

A common assumption people make when they hear about the variants in the manuscript tradition is that those variants significantly influence the theology and praxis of the church. Skeptics propagate and even inflate the notion of variants without actually giving examples of them. This is because the variants – wherever they do occur – are harmless, and do not lend credence to the skeptic’s position.

Consider scholar Dr. Timothy Paul Jones on this matter:

Spread across millions and millions of words in more than 5,000 manuscripts, the variations represent a small percentage of the total text… the New Testament text is 92.6% stable. In other words, all these differences affect less than 8% of the New Testament text! What’s more, the overwhelming majority of these differences have to do with words that are misspelled or rearranged – differences that have no impact on the translation or meaning of the text.

TIMOTHY PAUL JONES, HOW WE GOT THE BIBLE

One of the most common variants is the simple misspelling of a word.  As scribes would copy texts by hand, usually by candle light, it wasn’t uncommon for their eye to drop down a line or lose its place.  For example, sometime in the manuscript tradition, the spelling of Matthew changed.  In codex vaticanus (4th c.), “Matthew” is spelled with two thetas (θθ) in Mt. 10:3.  In codex washingtonianus (4th – 5th c.), “Matthew” is spelled with a tau and a theta (τθ).  See the comparison of the spelling in the two manuscripts below:

Codex Vaticanus, Mt. 10:3
Codex Washingtonianus, Mt. 10:3

How much of an impact has this variant made on the teaching and practice of the church?  ZERO.  This – as with each of the variants – is virtually insignificant.


Faulty Assumption #2: The Church Didn’t Confer Authority Onto the Texts Until the 4th Century

There is an assumption even more basic than the first one.  Skeptics try to use the reality of variants to support a presupposed narrative that the church convened at a council in the 4th century (or later) to decide which books would be canonized and which ones would be banned.  The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) is usually chosen to host the decisions of this narrative as it is the first ecumenical council and fits the time frame.  However, there are a couple of things wrong with this theory:


What Happened at Nicaea

First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (AD 325)

Unfortunately, most people learn more about the Council of Nicaea from fictional works like The Da Vinci Code than from history.  This gathering of 300 bishops in AD 325 had nothing to do with conferring authority onto texts to form a canon.  The council gathered to settle the Arianism controversy, a debate regarding the eternality of Jesus Christ.  

Conspiracy theorists simply assume this council canonized Scripture because they need such a setting to support their narrative.


Recognizing Authority vs. Conferring Authority

The truth is that the church has never seen herself in the position to confer authority onto the Texts of Scripture.  Instead, the church has only recognized the authority intrinsic to the Texts.  And we see this happening as soon as the New Testament Texts are being written down. For example, Peter recognizes the authoritative nature of Paul’s letters being of the same authority as the OT Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:15-16), which Peter says are the result of God’s Spirit revealing Truth through the human author (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Gospels themselves were identified as Scripture as soon as they were written down as well.  An example of this is when Paul quotes the Gospel of Luke alongside of Deuteronomy as Scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.

As the New Testament Texts are being copied and becoming available, collections of them began to be compiled together. For example, the Muratorian Canon (c. AD 180) lists 22/27 books of the New Testament.  We also have a complete list of the 27 books of the New Testament with Origen of Alexandria (AD 184 – 253) in his Homilae on Iosuam 7:1.

The hypothesis that I put forward – that the church recognized the authority intrinsic to the Texts – better fits the historical data than the skeptical theory of the church conferring authority onto the Texts.  Skeptics have even had to go as far as fabricating the events at Nicaea to find support for their theory.


Accurate Scribal Transcription

In the decades between the autographs and the extant manuscripts of the Gospels, scribes entrusted with transmitting the eyewitness testimony have given us ample evidence to trust they did so accurately.  In fact, the more manuscripts we find, the better we can appreciate the degree of accuracy by which they transcribed manuscripts.

The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an incredible example of how effective scribes were in accurately transcribing manuscripts.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were rediscovered in the twentieth century, it became clear that the text of the Old Testament had remained remarkably stable over the centuries. In fact, a scroll of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QIsaa) was copied more than a hundred years before Jesus was born; yet, the wording of this scroll of Isaiah agreed almost completely with Masoretic texts that were copied a thousand years later!

TIMOTHY PAUL JONES, HOW WE GOT THE BIBLE

Conclusion: The Voice of the Shepherd

We could speak all day of the psychological impact the Resurrection had on the memories of those who witnessed it, the various controls the church had in place during the oral period, and the accuracy of ancient scribal practices.  While those things are important and provide us with reasons to trust the Gospels, they do not answer the “why” question.  Why did the church in the first century take such care to preserve the Apostles’ eyewitness accounts of Jesus?

To find this answer, we must turn to the words of Jesus Himself:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

JOHN 10:14-16

Jesus came into a dark world, a world full of sin, hate, and despair.  And we were all fully deserving of God’s wrath, to perish under the weight of judgement against our own wickedness.  But God is a gracious God.  Although there was nothing worthy in ourselves, He nevertheless set His love on us.  

To be reconciled to a holy God requires a Mediator, a Redeemer, a Deliverer, a Shepherd.  This Savior must gain for His people right standing before God (righteousness) and also endure the just judgement for their sin.  Only then can they be reconciled to Him.  This is Who Jesus is and what He came to do.  He came as a good Shepherd to guide His sheep out of darkness and into light.

His sheep, however, are not just those who were with Him during His earthly ministry.  There are sheep of every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout the rest of this age (Rev. 7:9).  And the thing about Jesus’ sheep is that they know His voice.  This is not a matter of instinct; this is a work of the Spirit.  God the Father draws His chosen people to Christ by His Spirit (Jhn. 6:44).  When His sheep, who once were spiritually blind (1 Cor. 2:14) and hating God (Rom. 8:7-8), receive the life-giving work of the Spirit, they are given a new heart with new affections by which they now have a love for Christ (Ez. 11:19; 36:26).  This new heart is the necessary “eyes to see and ears to hear” the Gospel (Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21; Ez. 12:2).  This is how the sheep hear the Shepherd.  This is why they know His voice out of all the others – they have received His Spirit.

The reason why we see the early church clinging to the words of the Apostles is because the Apostles were carrying the Shepherd’s voice (Acts 1:21-26; 15:6-16:5; Mt. 16:19; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thes. 5:27; 2 Thes. 3:14).  They knew these words were life and so they ensured that they be preserved from being tainted or lost. 

This is also why other works in this time (e.g. The Shepherd of HermasThe Epistle of Barnabas, or the pseudepigraphical texts like the Gospel of Thomas, etc.) were not counted among the New Testament Texts. Those texts which did not come from the Apostles do not carry the voice of the Shepherd. Serapion, bishop of Antioch in the latter part of the 2nd century, gave this very reason as to why he didn’t want his congregation reading the so-called Gospel of Peter as though it were Scripture:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.

SERAPION OF ANTIOCH, ECCL. HIST. 6.12.3

There is no grand council responsible for the Bible, no such conspiracy to “ban” books that didn’t fit a predetermined theological position. The Bible is simply the voice of the Shepherd as carried by those who were commissioned by the Shepherd to deliver it to the sheep.

Open your Bibles. Listen attentively to the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him for He is bringing many sons to Glory (Heb. 2:10).

Reliability of the Gospels IV

Phase 2: Defense of Controlled Oral History (Cont.)

Having shown that the Gospel of Mark is the eyewitness testimony of the Apostle Peter, we now turn to the other Gospels.


The Gospel of Luke as Eyewitness Testimony

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

LUKE 1:1-4

Right out of the gate, Luke tells us that he has done the hard work of historical research for his readers.  Those who were “from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” is no doubt a reference to the Apostles or those who met the qualification to be an Apostle (John 15:27; Acts 1:21-22).  Luke interviewed eyewitnesses, fact-checked, verified information, and wrote an “orderly account” of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Do we know which eyewitnesses Luke received his information from?  Yes we do!

  1. The Gospel of Luke contains ~60% of the Gospel of Mark.  That might sound peculiar or even suspicious, but I assure you it is a good thing that this is the case.Luke tells us upfront he is aware of and utilized previously written Gospel “narratives” (v. 1:1).  Peter’s eyewitness account, as recorded by Mark, was simply one of the sources Luke used as a historian gathering accounts to construct his Gospel.  Because he chose to use Mark, at least 60% of Mark shows up 2x in the New Testament.  Due to the degree of homology between each reference, we can demonstrate that the Gospels were carefully preserved.
  2. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is likely another source used by Luke.  I make this case for two reasons.  First, Luke has the most extensive birth of Jesus narrative in the Gospels and the only account of His boyhood.Where did Luke get that information?  Considering Mary’s personal insight into the childhood of Christ, it makes sense that she would be able to supply him with that information.  More than that, Luke tells us that after Jesus’ birth and after they found the boy Jesus in the temple, Mary “treasured these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 51).  The only way Luke would know that Mary treasured these moments in her heart is if she was one of the eyewitnesses he said to have interviewed.Secondly, Luke has the only account of John the Baptist’s birth.  Mary is a likely source for this information as well given the fact that she visited John’s mother, her cousin, Elizabeth when they were both pregnant (Lk. 1:56).
  3. Given Luke’s extensive ministry with the Apostles (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-37; 28:1-16; Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:12; Philemon 1:24), he certainly had access to all the eyewitnesses he desired, especially the Apostle Paul who witnessed the risen Lord on the Damascus road.According to 2nd century pastor, Irenaeus (AD 130 – 202), Paul was an important eyewitness for Luke’s Gospel:

Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.

IRENAEUS OF LYONS, AGAINST HERESIES

The Gospel of Matthew as Matthew’s Testimony

It is easier to identify the eyewitness sources in the next two Gospels as they are both written by eyewitnesses.  The Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle and former tax-collector, Matthew (Mt. 9:9; 10:1-4).

Second century theologian and educator, Clement of Alexandria, confirms this:

Of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John left us their recollections, and tradition says they took to writing perforce. Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, ECCL. HIST. 3.24.5-6

The Gospel of John as the Beloved Disciple’s Testimony

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.

JOHN 21:24-25

The fourth Gospel self-attests to be the eyewitness testimony of the author, who is identified in the narrative as “the Beloved disciple” (13:23-26; 19:25-27, 35; 20:2-10; 21:2, 7; 21:20-24), the friend of the high priest (18:15-16), and the disciple at the cross (19:26, 35).

Irenaeus, again, supports the self-attestation of the Gospels:

Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

IRENAEUS OF LYONS, AGAINST HERESIES

All of this goes to show that, contrary to the first faulty assumption, the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry remained an authoritative presence throughout the oral period all the way to the time the Gospels were written.


Faulty Assumption #2: The Early Church Didn’t Value the Eyewitness Testimony Enough to Ensure Accurate Transmission

Claiming that the eyewitness testimony changed during the oral period also assumes that the early church had such a low view of the testimonies that they didn’t put measures in place to secure accurate transmission.  However, that is not what the historical record tells us.  In fact, we find that the early church had various controls in place:

  1. The first control that we find lays with the Apostles themselves.  Their authoritative presence throughout the oral period ensured their testimonies did not evolve without them.Let’s consider Papias again on this matter:

Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come by my way, I inquired about the words of the elders – what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying

PAPIAS OF HIERAPOLIS, ECCL. HIST. 3.39.3-4

For Papias, he didn’t want second-hand information; he wanted to hear the Jesus stories from the very eyewitnesses themselves, specifically the Apostles. Not only does his writings indicate their central presence in the Christian community even toward the end of the first century, it also shows us the value that the church placed on the oral tradition that doesn’t coincide with the assumption skeptics make.

    2.  Another control is the community checks and balances. 

Just as the telephone game analogy fails to take into consideration the enduring influence of the eyewitnesses, it also neglects the fact that the Jesus tradition was shared in a communal setting, providing a checks and balances to the transmission. According to the telephone game analogy, one person tells another who tells another who tells another, each in isolation. However, this is not how the life of Jesus was articulated. It was told in the context of the community (Acts 2:42-47), many of whom were eyewitnesses themselves and would be able to correct the story-teller if he deviated from the truth.

    3. Finally, the church’s competency requirement for teaching. 

The author of Hebrews indicates a level of knowledge required before one can teach (Heb. 5:11-6:3).  James says that not everyone should teach (Jas. 3:1), and Paul says that those who do teach have an important part to play in the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). All of this value given to the office of teacher indicates value given to the content he is teaching.


Controlled Oral History

What would the early Christian community have to look like for the “telephone game” analogy to be a reality?  The eyewitnesses would need to be absent and the community would need to be apathetic and negligent with the testimony they were transmitting.  History allows neither to be assumed.

On the contrary, we see the early church took great strides to ensure the eyewitness testimony would be preserved throughout this period.  When the eyewitnesses began to die off (or, as Clement above said, “[as they were] on the point of going to the others”), the church took to writing their accounts of Jesus down so that the authoritative message of the Apostles would remain even after their deaths.

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.

1 CORINTHIANS 15:3-8

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).

RICHARD BAUCKHAM, JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES

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…

PAPIAS OF HIERAPOLIS

Reliability of the Gospels II

Phase 1: Defense of Accurate Recall

From the Mind of the Eyewitnesses to Their Mouths

Skeptical Claim & Assumptions

One might think that providing a defense of this first phase of testimony transmission is unnecessary. There was once a time when all that an apologist had to do was demonstrate that the Gospels could historically be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus. That is no longer the case.

Skeptics today seek to undermine the reliability of the Gospels by claiming Jesus’ followers did not have the ability to accurately recall the events they witnessed. We hear this claim from Bart Ehrman, notorious New Testament critic and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

What then about the Gospels of the New Testament? If they are based on eyewitnesses are they necessarily accurate? Do they in every instance represent accurate memories?… They are not necessarily reliable.

BART EHRMAN, JESUS BEFORE THE GOSPELS

At first, Ehrman’s claims cause you to think. Are the memories of eyewitnesses necessarily reliable? No. Not necessarily. However, they are not necessarily unreliable either.

It is important to understand where Ehrman is coming from when considering the conclusions he draws. Ehrman is committed to a worldview known as methodological naturalism. For Ehrman, there is no God, no miraculous events, and nothing beyond matter and energy. This assumption about the world significantly affects his conclusions. Here is how:

Because Ehrman automatically rejects any miracle-claim in the Gospels, casting them into the realm of fabrication and myth, there is nothing in the life of Jesus (according to Ehrman) which would make a substantial enough of an impact to be remembered. Ehrman’s Jesus is merely a man and nothing else. And if Jesus were simply your friendly neighborhood Galilean, how could anything in His life be significant enough to warrant accurate recall? This is why Ehrman has no confidence in the memories of the Apostles. He treats them as though the events in Jesus’ life were like recalling any typical, mundane memory such as what you ate for breakfast on the third Sunday of last November.


Ehrman’s Straw Man

As Ehrman does this, he commits a fallacy known as “straw-manning.” Instead of treating the Gospels on their own terms, he does so on his terms. By doing so, he treats them as though they are weaker than they are (raising up a “straw-man” that merely looks like the real thing), making it appear as though they are weak when he knocks them down.

This is not what intellectual honesty looks like. In order to deal with historical texts (which is what the Gospels are), one must deal with them according to how they present themselves. Ehrman’s understanding of the Gospels does not do them justice, for the Gospels tell of a man from God who did and said marvelous things to the shock and awe of thousands. Jesus preached with an authority the people never heard before (Mk. 1:22; Mt. 9:8; Jhn. 7:46). He demonstrated authority over sickness (Mk. 1:34), nature (Mk. 4:35ff), demons (Mk. 1:27), and death itself (Mk. 5:21ff). It is a complete dismissal of their genre and testimony to treat them as the product of distorted memories as if there were no weight or significance to what they are communicating.


Why Jesus Would Have Been Remembered

Not only did Jesus do and say marvelous things, New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, identifies several reasons why Jesus would have been accurately remembered in the early Christian community:

  • The first reason Bird identifies is that, for the early church, Jesus was the bedrock of group and self-identify. He wasn’t simply an acquaintance or close friend to the disciples. The lives of Jesus’ followers were literally transformed and shaped by Jesus of Nazareth.

We should take into account that the sayings and deeds of Jesus comprised the bedrock for the self-understanding of the early Christian communities. We are not dealing with forgettable and trivial details of general knowledge. The faith, ethics, symbols, and praxis of early Christian communities were all defined and oriented around the impact that Jesus had upon them, an impact that was embodied in memories about Jesus.”

MICHAEL F. BIRD, THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD
  • The second reason is that the experiences of the early church took place in the context of community. These stories were not recollections of sole individuals; these were community experiences. The stories themselves were immediately told and retold in this same context (see Acts 2:42). What this provides is a natural checks and balances system. If one story-teller veered from the truth as he recalled the events, another eyewitness would have corrected him.

    It is important for us to understand that as the eyewitnesses recalled Jesus’ life and ministry, it wasn’t done in a remote or isolated manner.
  • Thirdly, there was a repetition to Jesus’ teaching and works. As an itinerant preacher, Jesus traveled throughout Galilee and Judea preaching and teaching. He likely preached the same messages on multiple occasions (e.g. Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, Mt. 5; Lk. 6).

    In addition to His repeated teaching, Jesus performed many works on multiple occasions. For example, Jesus raised the widow’s son (Lk. 7), Jairus’s daughter (Mk. 5), and Lazarus (Jn. 11). Each repeated sermon and work would drive the memory deeper and deeper into minds of those who witnessed them.
  • A final reason why the eyewitnesses would have remembered Jesus’ teaching accurately is due to the fact that Jesus taught in such a way that made his sermons memorable. By employing hyperbole, puns, proverbs, paradoxes, parables, rhythm, parallelism, repetition, and other techniques, Jesus ensured His disciples would not forget His messages.

    Some scholars estimate that as much as 80% of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels contain such pedagogical devices (see Michael Birdin The Gospel of the Lord, 40, 87).

Why was Jesus such a fascinating teacher? What caused these large crowds to follow him? One reason people came to hear Jesus was that many were convinced that God was speaking through Jesus of Nazareth and that what he was saying was indeed the Word of God (cf. Luke 5:1; 11:28; Mark 4:14-20)… No doubt an additional factor that enters the picture involves the personality of Jesus, for his personality gave life and vitality to his message… People loved to listen to Jesus because of the kind of person he was. Publicans, sinners, children, the crowds – all found in Jesus one whom they enjoyed being near… There is still another factor that made Jesus a great teacher… this is the how, or the exciting manner in which Jesus taught.

NT SCHOLAR, ROBERT H. STEIN

A community memorizing Jesus’ teaching is not too much to be expected of an oral culture. It was commonplace for an ancient Jew to memorize large bodies of tradition, as Jewish literature testifies (see 2 Macc. 2:25).


Proof That Jesus was Accurately Remembered

The disciples didn’t have a hard time remembering their Master. We have extrabiblical evidences that confirm they were able to recall specific details of Jesus’ life. For example, the ancient Roman historian, Tacitus, is in agreement with the disciples on the details of the time, place, and governing authorities during Jesus’ execution:

“Their name comes from Christ, who during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”

TACITUS, ANNALS 15.44

And the Disciples Remembered

Wouldn’t it be great if the disciples told us themselves what it was about the teaching and works of Jesus that made Him so unforgettable? Believe it or not, they have told us!

Jesus’ death shouldn’t have been a surprise to His disciples. After all, He told them repeatedly that He was going to give His life and be raised on the third day. However, seeing their Lord hanging on the cross was too much for them to bear, and the reality of what they were witnessing caused them to lose hope. It was in such a state of despair that the women went to the tomb on the third day. Yet when they arrived, the tomb was empty, and two messengers from God appeared to them.

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you when he was still in Galilee, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” And they remembered his words.
– Luke 24:5b-8

What was the cause of their remembering? Beholding the Resurrection.

John tells us that this was true of all the disciples:

So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made.”
– John 2:22

“His disciples did not understand these things at first.  However, when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.”
– John 12:16

The Resurrection of Jesus changed everything for the disciples.  It brought clarity to the strange things they heard Jesus say and do.  Though they were slow to believe and understand, the Resurrection aroused their faith.  It gave them courage to preach the Gospel to the very authorities they once hid from in a locked upper room while Jesus was in the grave (Jhn. 20:19; Acts 3).

What was it about Jesus’ life that made Him so unforgettable?  It was His victory over death.


Reliability of the Gospels I

Defending the Reliability of the Gospels

There are many skeptical arguments that believers need to be prepared to respond to. One of the primary front-lines of defense is the reliability of the Gospels. A frequent claim that is made is that much of the Gospels were fabricated by the early Christian community. According to those critics, the reason why Christians in the first century wrote the Gospels wasn’t because the events actually happened in history; instead, they wrote the Gospels because they needed a way to deal with what they were struggling with as a community. Over time, the historic Jesus became embellished. As Christians interacted with the Greeks and Romans, who had the pantheon and demigods, they deified Jesus so that their religion could compete with that of the world around them.

These claims by skeptics are serious for they challenge the very core of our faith. Our faith is in Christ alone. This Christ is not some figure of our imagination or the construction of man; the Christ we believe in is the Christ of the Scriptures. If the Scriptures have not spoken truly concerning the Person of Jesus then our faith is not based upon the truth but upon a lie. You see the significance of undermining the Gospels? That is why, in order to give a reason for the hope that is in us, we need to be prepared to show how that hope is not based upon a lie but upon a God who entered into history and secured our redemption.

When defending the truthfulness of Scripture, the most natural place to begin is defending the reliability of the Gospels. The reason why this is a good starting point is because the Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Once we demonstrate the Gospels to be reliable sources then we can show how Jesus confirmed the authority of the Old Testament & commissioned His Apostles to write the New Testament. By doing so, we have demonstrated the reliability of all the Scriptures!

Now, our approach to defending the reliability of the Gospels involves three steps:

  1. First, we make the following claim:

    The Gospels are products of men who were witnesses of and commissioned by the Resurrected Jesus.

    Next, we are going to defend our claim. We can say that our claim should be accepted if we can effectively demonstrate the next two steps.
  2. Second, we demonstrate that the testimony of eyewitnesses of Jesus has been preserved in the New Testament Gospels.
  3. Finally, we demonstrate that the eyewitnesses of Jesus testified truthfully.

With our claim stated above, we can move on to the second step by demonstrating that the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Jesus has been preserved in the New Testament Gospels. This step is quite involved and will span over the next few posts.


Testimony Transmission

As we begin step 2, we must ask the question, how did the Gospels come to us? Did they fall from Heaven on a silver platter? Are they forgeries of the 4th century or later? We cannot possibly hope to demonstrate their reliability without answering this question.

As I said above, the Gospels are the product of eyewitness testimony. What I mean by that is this: people who saw the works of Jesus and heard His teaching began to tell others about this Savior from Galilee. Of the many people who witnessed his life and ministry, some of them (Apostles) were commissioned by Jesus to preach in an authoritative way. It is specifically the testimony of these Apostles that has come down to us in the NT Gospels. And on its way to us, the testimony went through three phases:

Phase 1: From the Mind to Mouth

At some point, those who witnessed Jesus’ life & ministry had to recall their experiences in order to tell others about the Savior. In this phase, the testimony is taken from the mind of the eyewitnesses to their mouths. We might refer to this phase as the recall phase.

Eyewitnesses recalled events in Jesus’ life & ministry

Phase 2: From Mouth to Pen

Once the eyewitnesses recalled their experiences, they began to share their stories about Jesus. This took place for some time until they were finally written down by the Gospel writers. We can refer to this period of time as the oral period of testimony transmission.

Eyewitnesses orally shared events of Jesus’ life & ministry

Phase 3: From Pen to Scribe

After the stories of Jesus were written down by the authors of the Gospels, scribes copied those texts by hand. This is the phase of scribal transcription. We can say that this is the end of the testimony transmissions because we have access to many of those copies today.


Once the events of Jesus’ life & ministry were written down, they were copied by scribes

Demonstrating Accurate Testimony Transmission Through the Three Phases

Over the next few posts, we will be demonstrating how the early Christian community ensured that the eyewitness testimony was transmitted through each of these phases accurately. As we will see, those who witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ accurately recalled and shared their experiences. The eyewitnesses then became the authors or provided their testimonies to the authors of the Gospels. Those Gospel autographs were then copied with considerable accuracy by scribes to produce the manuscripts we have access to today.