We continue Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels? by looking at three chapters that have closely related content.
When were the Gospels written?
Roberts offers dates for the composition of the Gospels that are later than many evangelicals would give, but he said early on he would use material that the broader scholarly world can agree on. He says the earliest we should expect Mark to have been written was AD60, with Matthew and Luke 65 or later, and John 75+. The dates you see more commonly are probably 3-5 years later for each of those.
Even though I think those dates are all unnecessarily late, they are not catastrophically so. These dates – even the more common ones – are within reasonable lifetimes of witnesses – so the second generation of the church could not just start making things up as both the older disciples and opponents were still around to correct the record.
It’s also worth noting that the Gospels were written well after Paul’s writings. Though there may be much in the Gospels that is hard to believe, the hardest to believe of all is the resurrection which was being taught in Christian circles by at least AD50 (c.f., 1Cor 15) and probably many years before.
What sources did Gospel writers use?
When the Gospels writers did their work, where did they get what they wrote down?
Luke mentions other writers and claims to have carefully investigated everything – suggesting he examined written documents and talked to witnesses, those “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Roberts uses this to launch into two kinds of sources: written and oral.
The written sources lead us to the so-called “two-source” hypothesis where Mark and “Q” plus other material were used to construct Matthew and Luke. And Mark is believed to have been constructed of earlier material too. This means there were earlier written sources that are closer to the events in question than the canonical Gospels.
As for the oral sources, we know within 20 years there was an oral tradition being passed down (again, e.g., 1Cor 15). If fact, we should expect a strong oral tradition because theirs was an oral, not a literary, culture – they were used to remembering things that were said. This oral tradition takes us back closer to the events of the Gospels than the canonical records.
Did early Christian oral tradition reliably pass down the truth about Jesus?
But what should we make of this oral tradition? How reliable is that? Wouldn’t that be open to corruption? And what about evolution due to misunderstanding or misremembering the tradition?
The latter is the “Telephone” objection: We’ve all played the game where everyone whispers a sentence down the line until it is garbled beyond recognition. Critics claim this is what would have happened to the Christian oral tradition.
But this objection is weak for a number of reasons:
1. “Since they did their work in community gatherings, if they got the story substantially wrong, the community in which they functioned would hold them accountable for their mistake” (p73).
2. The early Christians thought Jesus was more than a mere teacher, His words were “uniquely true and more important than any other ideas in the world” (e.g., Matt 7:24, Mark 13:31), motivating them to remember what He said and to transmit it accurately (p74). And “…so much in the oral tradition about Jesus does not reflect the needs of the early church” (p78).
3. The words of Jesus seem to have been designed to be memorable.
4. Unlike “Telephone,” the rules of the game were designed to maximize accuracy, not errors.
“Sometimes you’ll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the Gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus’ mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it did not happen” (p77).
We do not live in an oral culture, and our memories seem to get more unreliable all the time. (I can barely remember by own phone number these days.) That leads us to be skeptical of the abilities of past cultures to remember large amounts of material, but even in our time there are those – in other cultures – who can and do commit large amounts of material to memory:
“The idea of early Christians memorizing substantial traditions about Jesus may seem unrealistic, … but consider the following contemporary analogy. All Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an. But many go on to memorize the entire book, which contains more than 80,000 Arabic words. … What enables a Muslim to memorize the entire Qur’an? … [T]he greatest motivation of all … is the belief that the Qur’an contains Allah’s own words. To memorize the Qur’an is to internalize the very words of God. In a similar vein, the early followers of Jesus had both the ability and the motivation to pass on oral tradition with accuracy” (p80-1).So what should we make of all of this? The first-century dating of the four Gospels, “combined with their use of earlier oral traditions combined with early Christian faithfulness in passing on these oral traditions, add up to a convincing rationale for trusting the Gospels” (p81).
The book in blog form: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?
The rest of this series:
Part 0, Part 1, Part 1.1, Part 2