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 Reports Passed On – First 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 Once a story is written and reproduced, such as anything from Gilgamesh to any other historical document, it becomes a specific story.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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
Michael J. Kok, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 9-10, 11.
Evidently the weight of Petrine authority did not compel an active readership of Mark. The reason for this limited use may lie in Mark’s glaring absences. Elements missing included the lofty Christological language of John, the ethical guidelines of the Sermon on the Mount or Plain, or the popular infancy or resurrection stories. Scribes felt compelled to amend Mark’s text, tampering with its conclusion and perhaps introduction that they held to be unsatisfactory. The perception of major holes at the beginning, middle, or ending of Mark’s story may have encouraged the production of new narrative lives of Jesus….
Given Mark’s lackluster reception in the patristic period, it is astounding that it survived at all once its contents were almost completely reabsorbed in Matthew and Luke. It could have disappeared without a trace like the other Synoptic sources lost to the dust of antiquity (cf. Luke 1:1-3).