On SJ Thomason’s Argument for Dating the Gospels Early

By and large the New Testament was written in the decades following the death of Jesus of Nazareth in 30 CE. The earliest writings came from a man by the name of Paul, a Pharisee turned Christian who traveled the Mediterranean spreading his message concerning Jesus Christ, the one who “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3). Paul was a contemporary of Jesus but there is no evidence that the two ever met. If they had, surely Paul would have been the first to let his readers know. Rather, Paul is adamant that the source of his knowledge of the true gospel came via revelation:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, NRSV).

Such rhetoric is part of Paul’s apostolic persona. Whereas others like Peter and James knew Jesus and spent time with him prior to the crucifixion, Paul was not afforded that opportunity. Instead, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him “[l]ast of all, as to one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8; cf. 9:1). But there is no doubt in Paul’s mind that he was chosen by the risen Jesus to preach the gospel: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17a).

Canonical Listings of Pauline Epistles 

Everything we know about Paul is derived from two sources: his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. The former are primary sources, that is to say that they are from Paul himself. The latter is secondary, that is to say that it is not from Paul himself. In the canonical New Testament there are thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Their order in the New Testament reflects not the order in which they were composed but their category and length. The first nine letters are letters to communities of believers (i.e. Christians in Rome, Christians in Corinth, etc.) while the final four are letters to specific individuals (i.e. Timothy, Titus, and Philemon). Within each category the letters are arranged according to length, from longest to shortest.

Pauline Epistles in the  Modern New Testament

To Communities

To Individuals

Romans (longest) 1 Timothy (longest)
1 Corinthians 2 Timothy
2 Corinthians Titus
Galatians Philemon (shortest)
Ephesians *longer than Galatians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians (shortest)

The ordering that we have today was, of course, not the only ordering known from Christian history. In some iterations, Galatians appears first while in others it is 1 Corinthians.

The Order of the Pauline Epistles in Canonical Lists1

Marcion

(2nd century)

Muratorian Fragment (2nd century)

Papyrus 46

(2nd century)

Galatians 1 Corinthians Romans
1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians Hebrews
2 Corinthians Ephesians 1 Corinthians
Romans Philippians 2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians Colossians Ephesians
2 Thessalonians Galatians Galatians
Ephesians 1 Thessalonians Philippians
Colossians 2 Thessalonians Colossians
Philippians Romans 1 Thessalonians
Philemon Philemon
Titus
1 Timothy
2 Timothy

Noticeably absent from Marcion’s listing are the Pastoral Epistles, i.e. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. The same is true of the Pauline codex P46 where seven missing folios at the end likely contained 2 Thessalonians and perhaps Philemon but not the Pastoral Epistles.2  This has led to some speculation that certain communities did not utilize the Pastoral Epistles or consider them canonical. Yet even supposing that to be the case, it is clear that many communities did utilize the Pastoral Epistles and they are included in one of our most significant early witnesses to the New Testament: Codex Sinaiticus (א). The order of the Pauline epistles in א is what we find in our modern New Testaments.3

Pauline Authorship 

Canonical lists are useful for telling us what books were frequently in use by Christian communities and were therefore considered sacred to some degree. But this doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the epistles themselves. What was believed about them is not indicative of the truth about them.

Without exception, each of the so-called Pauline epistles in the New Testament are attributed to the work of the apostle Paul. But we cannot take it for granted that because Paul’s name is attached to those letters that he must have written them. After all, the practice of pseudepigraphy was not uncommon even among Jewish and Christian authors. For example, the book of Daniel was almost certainly not written by a sixth century Jewish exile by that name and likely originated in the second century BCE.4 The same is true of works like the Epistle of Barnabas, a second century CE letter purportedly written by Paul’s missionary companion Barnabas. The Pauline epistles are no exception to this and scholars have divided the thirteen letters into two general categories: undisputed epistles and disputed epistles. The disputed epistles can be further divided into the Deutero-Pauline epistles and Pastoral Epistles.

The Pauline Epistles

Undisputed Epistles

Deutero-Pauline Epistles

Pastoral Epistles

Romans Ephesians 1 Timothy
1 Corinthians Colossians 2 Timothy
2 Corinthians 2 Thessalonians Titus
Galatians
Philippians
1 Thessalonians
Philemon

The undisputed epistles are generally regarded as authentic by New Testament scholars. Paul almost certainly wrote them. There is less certainty about the Deutero-Pauline Epistles since internal evidence suggests they were likely written after the death of Paul.5 The Pastoral Epistles were almost certainly not composed by Paul.6 

But if the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul, then who wrote them and when?

The Origin of the Pastoral Epistles

That the Pastoral Epistles depended on some kind of Pauline corpus seems certain. The author(s) of the Pastoral Epistles seems to have some level of acquaintance with the epistles of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians.7 The author(s) wanted to sound like Paul but internal evidence makes it relatively clear that they weren’t Paul.8

  • Roughly thirty percent of the vocabulary in the Pastoral Epistles does not appear anywhere else in Paul’s undisputed letters.9 For example, the only place in the entire Pauline corpus where we find the word eusebeia (i.e. “godliness”) is in the Pastoral Epistles.10
  • Vocabulary that is featured in the undisputed letters is either omitted or appears with less frequency or with a different theological meaning in the Pastoral Epistles. For example, nowhere in the Pastoral Epistles do we find any usage of euangelizō  (“to proclaim the gospel”), a verb Paul uses nineteen times in the undisputed letters.
  • In the undisputed letters, Paul seems to look favorably upon women in ministerial roles (Romans 16:1, 3, 6, 7) and affirms that in Christ “there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28). However, in the Pastoral Epistles the structure of the church is almost exclusively male and women are instructed to “learn in silence” and are not permitted to teach men (1 Timothy 2:11).

But if not Paul, then who? The answer to that question may forever be out of our reach as we have virtually no clue as to who the author could have been. Undoubtedly, the author was part of a community that was favorable toward Paul and his ministry or else they would not have tried to imitate him in their writings. Beyond that we cannot be certain.

Determining when the Pastoral Epistles were written fairs a little better. When we read Paul’s undisputed letters we see virtually nothing about how churches were to be structured. It seems that those communities were far more egalitarian and that there was no set authority structure. But this is not the situation we find in the Pastoral Epistles. In fact, it is assumed that authority structures exist and “Paul” writes to address the qualifications for those who are seated in positions of power. What does this tell us? It tells us that while the undisputed letters derive from an early era of Christianity, the Pastoral Epistles are probably from a time closer to the second century.11 And since Paul died sometime in the 60s CE, he could not possibly have been their author.

Enter Pop-Apologetics

Such views are not in line with many of the standard takes in evangelical circles. This is especially true among pop-apologists for whom early dating is essential to their views on inerrancy and inspiration. For example, I was recently alerted to a tweet put out by pop-apologist SJ Thomason concerning Paul and the dating of the Gospels. She wrote,

The consensus in dating the Pauline NT books is they pre-dated his beheading in 64. Paul referenced Luke’s books in Tim. & Cor. (& Luke omitted the martyrdoms of Peter, James & Paul & the fall of the temple), so Luke pre-dated Paul. Luke referenced Mark’s book, so Mark is earlier.12

It should go without saying that people who have been beheaded cannot compose literature of any kind and so the “consensus” is simply common sense. But there is a hidden assumption in what Thomason has written, namely that all of the canonical Pauline epistles were written by Paul. As I briefly discussed above, this is not the consensus view and of the two Pauline epistles Thomason mentions only 1 Corinthians is deemed authentic by virtually all New Testament scholars.

So to what is Thomason referring when she claims that “Paul referenced Luke’s books in Tim. & Cor.”? Paul refers to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, a passage that shares many similarities with the Lukan version of the event (Luke 22:14-23). It is possible that Paul was using Luke’s Gospel as his source for his words but he asserts that he received the instructions “from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23) and not from a written source. Furthermore, it appears that Paul had already handed these instructions down to the Corinthians and was simply reiterating them in his epistle. It is more likely that the Lukan text was influenced by Paul rather than vice versa.

But what about her reference to Timothy? Well, in 1 Timothy 5:18 we read of two sayings. The first is from the Torah: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (cf. Deuteronomy 25:4). The second is found nowhere else but the Gospel of Luke: “The laborer deserves his to be paid” (cf. Luke 10:7). This tells us that whoever wrote 1 Timothy had the Gospel of Luke in his mind. And since Thomason’s assumption is that 1 Timothy was written by Paul then it must be the case that Luke’s Gospel was written before Paul wrote 1 Timothy. And since Luke’s Gospel was dependent upon Mark’s Gospel then Mark’s Gospel was written before that. And since Thomason believes in Matthean priority,13 then Matthew’s Gospel would have come before Mark’s Gospel. Therefore, these writings are all attested to be very early.

However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, the saying of Deuteronomy 25:4 that we find in 1 Timothy 5:18 is not the only place where Paul cites that specific saying. In 1 Corinthians 9:9 we find it as well: “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” In context, Paul is explaining that he and his fellow laborers like Barnabas have the right to expect compensation for their work for the gospel. Paul wrote,

Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?

Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law of Moses say the same. For it is written in the law of Moses, You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? (1 Corinthians 9:7-12a)

Of course, Paul refuses such compensation on the grounds that he does not want to “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12b). Regardless, it is odd that Paul, having employed the passage of Deuteronomy both here and in 1 Timothy 5:18, fails to employ the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. The rhetorical effect of adding the Lukan Jesus’ saying here in the context of 1 Corinthians would have served to emphasize all the more Paul’s desire to keep obstacles out of the way of the gospel. For if even Jesus himself stated that those who labor deserve to be paid then Paul would be demonstrating how much he cares for his integrity of his gospel ministry that he would be willing to not enjoy such compensation.

Second, Thomason speaks of the “consensus” view of the dating of the Pauline epistles but flatly ignores the consensus view concerning the origin of the Gospels themselves. Far-and-away the consensus position is that of Markan priority: Mark composed his Gospel first and both Matthew and Luke relied on Mark’s Gospel when composing their own.

Slide1

And the consensus view of New Testament scholars concerning when the Gospel of Mark was written is sometime during the Jewish War (66-73 CE), likely after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This means that both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written after 70 CE, perhaps in the 80s or as late the early second century.14

But what about the lack of any mention of the death of Peter or Paul or of the destruction of the Temple? Aren’t these indicative of a date before 70 CE? In reality, this is a red herring as we would not expect an author, writing about a specific period, to write explicitly about events not in his purview. Thomason has indicated in another tweet that she accepts a date of 90 CE for the writing of the Gospel of John yet it never mentions Peter’s or Paul’s death or the destruction of the temple in explicit terms.15 If the lack of such elements is a sign of pre-70 authorship, then surely the Gospel of John was written before 70 CE. Yet few New Testament scholars – evangelical or otherwise – accept such reasoning. Apparently, neither does Thomason.

Conclusion

It seems Thomason’s attempt at dating the Gospels early based upon Pauline literature fails. The epistle of 1 Timothy was likely composed after Paul had already been killed and thus cannot be used as evidence that Paul knew of the Gospel of Luke. Nor is the reference to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 evidence of dependence upon Luke as it is more likely that the Lukan text knew of the Pauline rather than vice versa. The consensus view among New Testament scholars is that of Markan priority and the consensus view of the date of the Markan Gospel is that it was likely composed sometime just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Acknowledgment: Twitter user @towerofbabull first alerted me to Thomason’s tweet and requested I write an article in response. That they would ask me to do so is very humbling and I appreciate the confidence that they place in my work.

NOTES

1 Adapted from Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, second edition (IVP Academic, 2011), 251.

2 Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Palaeography (OUP, 1981), 64.

3 With the exception of the epistle to the Hebrews which in א appears after Romans and before 1 Corinthians. This was due to an early belief that Hebrews was written by the apostle Paul, despite its anonymous nature. In modern New Testaments it appears at the end of the Pauline collection as the first of the Catholic Epistles.

4 See Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1” (12.2.18),  amateurexegete.com.

5 See Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 438-448.

6 See Ehrman, 449-452.

7 Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 96-97.

8 Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, fifth edition (WJK, 2009), 159-162.

9 Roetzel, 160.

10 See Amateur Exegete, “The Mystery τῆς εὐσεβείας” (4.8.18), amateurexegete.com

11 Ehrman writes, “The clerical structure of [the Pastoral Epistles] appears far removed from what we find in the letters of Paul, but it is closely aligned with what we find in proto-orthodox authors [i.e. Ignatius, Irenaeus, etc.] of the second century.” Ehrman, 456.

12

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14 SJ Thomason, “Was Mark or Matthew the First to Write the Gospel?” (3.3.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 28 December 2018.

15 See Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (HarperOne, 2012), 424-426.

16

Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 2.18.05 PM

It should be noted that it is not the case that “[m]ost Bible experts agree apostle John” wrote the Gospel that bears his name. Scholars aren’t sure who wrote it but it seems very unlikely that it was a disciple of Jesus.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 3

This is the third post in a series examining pop-apologist Heather Schuldt’s attempt to take down New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. The two previous posts can be viewed here:

In this post we will be looking at Schuldt’s claim regarding the oral tradition that lay behind the Gospel accounts.

ORAL TRADITION

Schuldt writes,

Oral Reports Passed OnFirst of all, while verbal storytelling most likely did occur in history, how can Ehrman be so sure that no one wrote down anything? He can’t. The Q document hypothesis shows that if the story was written down and reproduced, which it was, then it did not have any time to be changed. Once a story is written and reproduced, such as anything from Gilgamesh to any other historical document, it becomes a specific story. Once a written story is reproduced and begins to circulate, the original becomes obvious. Today, we have thousands of early dated copies of the same gospel story. The story did not change from year to year like Ehrman imagines. Second, The “telehone operator game” that second graders play does not apply to the publication process, and it does not apply to a monologue that is memorized and performed in front of an audience. Third, some people have remarkable memories and can recite word for word from scripts and monologues. I personally witnessed in my lifetime a speaker recite the entire book of Revelation from memory in front of a large audience. Even if sermons were given verbally in the past, when the same sermon is given over and over, it most certainly does not change at all. Rather, it becomes even more ingrained into the memory, in a very precise way, much like a stage performer where the speaker recites exact lines night after night without error.1

As we indicated in previous posts, Schuldt has not provided a link to the video wherein Ehrman makes these statements and so I cannot comment on them directly. Nevertheless, we can say a few things about Schuldt’s view.

Hopelessly Confused About Q

Schuldt again brings up the Q source and again demonstrates absolutely no understanding about what it was and what it entails. We saw this in part 1 of this series when we commented on her use of Q as evidence for an early date for the Gospel accounts. So let’s review what Q is and why many New Testament scholars think it existed.

Most readers should be familiar with the phrase “the Synoptic Problem.” In reading the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we readily notice the existence of multiple parallel accounts, sometimes referred to as the “triple tradition.” The “problem” of the Synoptic Problem is how to account for this tradition. While there have been a variety of proposals, the one agreed upon by most New Testament scholars is what has become known as the Two-Source Hypothesis (2SH). 2SH rests on the notion of what is called “Markan priority,” the position that the first of the Synoptic Gospels to have been written was Mark’s Gospel and that both the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a basis for their own works.

Slide1

There is no need to defend Markan priority here but the reader is encouraged to see Ehrman’s own defense of it in his textbook on the New Testament.2 

2SH also rests on the assumption that both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels utilized another source apart from the Gospel of Mark. Certain texts found in Matthew and Luke closely resemble one another, something often referred to as the “double tradition.” Under 2SH, the source for the double tradition is the hypothetical source Q (German, Quelle). Q was a source utilized by both Matthew and Luke but not by Mark.3

Slide1

So then 2SH posits that both Matthew and Luke had two sources from which they drew when composing their Gospel accounts: the Gospel of Mark and Q.

Slide1

Whatever else we may think about Q, it is clear that its existence was inferred and proposed on the basis of Markan priority. Therefore, to appeal to its existence commits one to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority, in turn, commits one to the position that Matthew and Luke both utilized source material when composing their Gospel accounts. And this is problematic for Schuldt’s belief that Matthew’s Gospel, for example, was written by Matthew the tax collector because if Matthew was an eyewitness to the events he reports why would he need to draw from sources at all, especially from Mark who was not an eyewitness?

Schuldt’s appropriation of Q in a bid to rescue the Gospels serves to undermine her position on those Gospels functioning as eyewitness accounts. But there is more. Schuldt also doesn’t seem to know of what Q is comprised. By-and-large, Q would have included material from the double tradition that is non-narrative. In other words, Q was actually a “sayings source” akin to what we find in the Gospel of Thomas; very little of Q is considered to be narrative.4 So from where did the narrative material in Matthew and Luke come? Under 2SH, much of it came from Mark. But what about the rest? A modified form of 2SH, known as the Four Source Hypothesis, posits that Matthew had a third source “M” and Luke had a third source “L” upon which they drew. However, it is also possible that the non-Markan and non-Q material was simply invented by the authors.

How the Story Changes

The existence of Q and Matthew and Luke’s utilization of it serves to undermine yet another assert of Schuldt’s. She wrote, “The Q document hypothesis shows that if the story was written down and reproduced, which it was, then it did not have any time to be changed.” But this is absolutely incorrect. Let me provide an example.

In Matthew 8:5-13 we read the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant. It is a story that also appears in the Gospel of Luke (7:1-10). In the Matthean narrative, the centurion indicates that Jesus is superior to himself and that all Jesus needs to do is “speak the word” to heal the servant. Jesus’ response is one of amazement and he tells the centurion, “Truly, I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). Then Jesus says these words:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:11-12).

In the Matthean narrative, these words serve to underscore the theme that those who are “heirs” may find themselves left out of the messianic banquet while those who are usually regarded as outsiders (i.e. the centurion) will be welcomed at the table.

The Lukan version of this story is rather truncated by comparison. After the centurion tells Jesus that Jesus need “only speak the word” and the servant would be healed, Jesus responds as he did in Matthew’s Gospel but without any of the language of Matthew 8:11-12. Instead, Jesus responds with the words of Matthew 8:10 and the scene ends with the healing of the centurion’s servant. So what has happened to the words Jesus spoke to the centurion recorded in Matthew 8:11-12? Well, Luke did not erase them entirely. Instead, Luke has inserted them into an entirely different context in Luke 13:28-29!

There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from the east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

Since both the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant and the saying about the messianic banquet are both from Q, it tells us that the Q material has been rearranged and appropriated. In fact, it is possible that the saying of Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29 was part of its own section in Q as was the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant. Matthew inserted the saying in his story of the centurion’s servant while Luke inserted it into a parable about the narrow door (Luke 13:23-30).

This is evidence that just because a source was written down it doesn’t mean that later authors cannot take that source and use its material in different contexts and therefore in different ways.5 This is also true of Matthew’s and Luke’s utilization of Markan material. In Mark’s Gospel, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany takes place just prior to Passover, during Passion Week (Mark 14:1-9). Matthew’s Gospel follows suit (Matthew 26:3-13). But Luke places the event long before Passion Week (Luke 7:36-50). In Mark’s Gospel, the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41) takes place after the healing of the paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12) and the calling of Levi (Mark 2:13-17). Luke follows suit (Luke 8:22-25). But in Matthew, the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) takes place before the healing of the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2-8) and the calling of Levi (i.e. Matthew; Matthew 9:9-13).

If Matthew and Luke rearranged both material from Q and from Mark then it means that the story did change. And what this says is that the Gospel authors were not interested in writing eyewitness accounts but rather they were painting portraits of Jesus relevant to the needs of their Christian communities. And if this happened with concrete written  sources, then it must have happened with oral tradition. But this is unsurprising as it wasn’t the accuracy of the words that was important so much as the message those words conveyed and their usefulness for particular contexts. Quite often they used those words in ways entirely separate from their original context. Eric Eve writes,

A further potential complication is that the relative stability of the Jesus tradition observable in the surviving sources may have been preceded by a period of rapid change as Jesus’ first followers tried to make sense of what they or their informants had experienced (as may be illustrated, say, by the proposal that a Passion narrative was created early on in response to the need to make sense of Jesus’ death). The need to make sense of other aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, such as the overall significance of his person, his most notable deeds and his teaching, may also have shaped (and probably did shape) the way Jesus was remembered from the start, for example, by keying the stories about him to salient aspects of Israelite tradition that were already well known, such as tales about Moses, Elijah, Elisha and David. Such interpretive shaping of the memories of Jesus was probably well underway prior to the earliest appearance of Jesus traditions in any surviving writings, and thus cannot be traced. The move from the original Galilean setting of Jesus’ first followers to the urban setting of Jerusalem and other cities of the empire will have given further impetus to reshaping the primitive Jesus traditions to meet the needs of a new context. Thus the relative stability of the tradition as it appears in its written remains cannot automatically be taken as an index of its historical reliability.6

Similarly, EP Sanders writes,

In trying to convince others, [early Christians] sometimes told stories of things that Jesus had said and done. In the early years this material was probably not written, but was simply passed on orally. When the disciples used incidents from Jesus’ life, they wanted to illustrate points, points that were important at the time….Besides winning new adherents, the disciples also instructed one another and their growing converts by recalling incidents from Jesus’ life. Sometimes they debated with Jewish teachers who rejected Jesus; these disputes provided a third context in which material from and about Jesus was employed.

Positively, these ways of using material from Jesus’ lifetime preserved it. It was preserved, however, in a form that was valuable to Jesus’ followers in their various activities. Thus, negatively, Jesus’ words and deeds were pulled out of their original context (in his own career) and thrust into another context, the disciples’ preaching and teaching.7

The fact of the matter is that the earliest memories of Jesus were shaped by years of telling and retelling stories about him. These stories were applied to contexts different from the one in which Jesus lived. The result is that what we currently have in the Gospel accounts is not a reliable guide to what happened in Jesus’ day. Bart Ehrman concludes,

If the Gospels have differences in historical detail, and each Gospel preserves traditions that have been changed, then it is impossible for the historian simply to take those stories at face value and uncritically assume that they provide historically accurate information.8

Whatever can be said about the historical Jesus and the circumstances of his life can only be teased out by rigorous and critical examination of the accounts we have in the Gospels.

Summary

As we have seen, the existence of written sources – even the hypothetical Q source – does not preclude the idea that changes could have been made to the Jesus story. In fact, as we saw, there were changes to that story. And if that happened in a written source, it surely happened in the oral sources whose form was far less concrete and far more malleable. Schuldt yet again is wrong in her attempted takedown of Ehrman and exhibits a lack of knowledge not only about the written sources we have and the hypothetical sources but also the oral tradition that stands behind the Gospel accounts.

If Ehrman’s is no expert, what is Schuldt?

NOTES

1 Heather Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), ladyapologist.com. Accessed 7 November 2018.

2 Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 122-123.

3 I have no interest in defending (or attacking) Q’s existence in this post. Readers are encouraged to consult works like Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Trinity Press International, 2002) as well as John Kloppenborg’s Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus (WJK Press, 2008).

4 The narrative material of Q would include the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:2-13), the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10), and the episode involving the disciples of John (Luke 7:18-28; Matthew 11:2-11).

5 See also Matthew 7:21 vs. Luke 6:46 and Matthew 7:22-23 vs. Luke 13:25-27, as two more examples.

6 Eric Eve, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (Fortress Press, 2014), 178-179.

7 EP Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 58-59.

8 Ehrman, 92.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bart D. Ehrman: Correcting Mark’s Style

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 123.

Sometimes Mark used a Greek style of writing that is somewhat awkward or not aesthetically pleasing, sometimes he uses unusual words phrases, and sometimes he presents difficult ideas. In many instances, however, these problems are not found when Matthew or Luke narrates the same stories. This difference suggests that Mark was the earliest of the three to be written. That is to say, it would be difficult to understand why Mark would introduce awkward grammar or a strange word or a difficult idea into a passage that originally posed no problem, but it is easy to see why Matthew or Luke might have wanted to eliminate such problems. It is more likely, therefore, that Mark was first and that it was later modified by one or both of the other authors….

Bart D. Ehrman: Redaction Criticism

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 120-121.

A “redactor” is someone who edits a text; “redaction criticism” is the study of how authors have created a literary work by modifying or editing their sources of information. The underlying theory behind the method is simple. An author will modify a source of information only for a reason – why change what a source has to say if it is acceptable the way it is? If enough changes point in the same direction, we may be able to uncover the redactor’s principal concerns and emphases.

We can subject the Gospels to a redactional analysis because we are convinced that their authors used actual sources in constructing their narratives; that is, they didn’t make up most of their stories themselves. Moreover, we are relatively certain that at least one of these sources still survives. To put the matter baldly: most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source for many of their stories about Jesus. By seeing how their authors edited their stories, we are able to determine their distinctive emphases.