Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 3

The origin of the gospels

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


Anonymous said...

I think the basic argument from the other side is this: apologetics is a whole lot of rationalizing for the superiority of Christian thought over the countless other systems of religious belief which you and I both agree are flawed and fictionalized expressions of man's longing for some kind of significance beyond everyday life.
And while you have come up with many reasons, variably convincing, for accepting Christian dogma specifically as true, it doesn't change the fact that for us, all historical facts are explained to satisfaction under the assumption that Christian mythology was invented, accepted, and propagated just as in the Greco-roman religions, Islam, and the numerous Hindu and Shinto sects. You maintain that your successful church is based on real people and events, but you are just as quick as I to dismiss the stories of miraculous feats performed by the Buddhas.
And of course there are apologists for other religions, the only ones I generally hear about are Muslim. And Christian apologists engage in debate with the Muslims, but can you really believe that debate is taking place when both sides enter the discussion with the unshakable conviction that their own side is right and the other is wrong?
Dogma stunts philosophy. To the best of anyone's knowledge, miracles exist only in stories. To be religious is to accept a handful of stories and reject all the others. The fact that Christianity is currently dominant in certain senses doesn't make it in principle different from other religions. Other religions have had as many believers and as much wealth. This church is one in a long cycle of institutions.

ChrisB said...

"it doesn't change the fact that for us, all historical facts are explained to satisfaction under the assumption that Christian mythology was invented, accepted, and propagated just as in the Greco-roman religions..."

If you've got a convincing naturalistic explanation for hundreds of people in different places and at different times interacting with a dead man after his death, for his timid and fearful followers suddenly becoming bold even in the face of death, and thousands of Jews abandoning centuries old traditions and even their families to follow someone who was, according to those traditions, cursed by God and turned those traditions upside down, I'd love to hear it.

To date the best I've seen is founded upon wishful thinking, bigotry, and undefended a priori assumptions of naturalism.

"you are just as quick as I to dismiss the stories of miraculous feats performed by the Buddhas."

Nope. I'm perfectly happy to examine the evidence. Got any? At all? Even a shred?

Vinny said...

If you've got convincing evidence of hundreds of people in different places and at different times interacting with a dead man after his death, I would love to see it. What you have is stories recorded decades after the fact whose authorship and sources cannot be verified. The single personal account you have is Paul’s and he describes nothing that rises above the level of hallucination.

The suddenness of the followers becoming bold is also based on those stories recorded decades later and the willingness to face martyrdom is from traditions that can often be dated in centuries after the fact.

As for thousands of people turning their lives upside down based on seemingly bizarre religious beliefs, we need look back no further than two centuries. The Mormon Church grew swiftly based on a single man’s claim that he read golden plates out of a hat with magic stones. Thousands of people risked persecution and made the arduous journey to Salt Lake City based on nothing more than fairy tales. The religious gullibility of the human species is indisputable fact.

ChrisB said...

Vinny, it's no surprise you don't think the evidence is convincing. I'll say again: I don't think there could be any evidence that would convince you.