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Probe Ministries > Reasons to Believe: Apologetics > Gospel Truth or Fictitious Gossip?


Gospel Truth or Fictitious Gossip? Print E-mail

Michael Gleghorn

Written by Michael Gleghorn

Forgetting What Lies Behind?

It was late at night and the university library was about to close. I was feverishly working to complete a project for one of my classes. A bell sounded, indicating it was time to shut down and leave the building. As I and a few other students began shutting down our computers to go home for the night, a security guard suddenly began yelling at us to leave the building immediately! Apparently we weren't moving quickly enough, and the guard, probably tired from a long day at work, was quite irritated. We told her we would leave as soon as we could, but it would take us a few minutes to pack up. Annoyed, she wrote down our names and threatened to report us to the administration. We, in turn, returned the favor, taking down her name and saying that we would report how rudely we were treated.

When I got back to my apartment, I immediately wrote down what had happened. I wanted to be sure that if I was contacted by the administration, I would have an accurate report of the evening's events. Knowing how fallible human memory can be, I wanted to write everything down while it was still fresh in my mind. Most people would say this was a wise thing to do.

But it raises an interesting question about the New Testament Gospels. Although liberal and conservative scholars differ a bit over when these documents were written, most would agree that the earliest Gospel (probably Mark) was written anywhere from twenty to forty years after Jesus' death. And the latest, the Gospel of John, probably dates to around sixty years after Jesus' death.

But why did they wait so long to write their accounts? Some scholars say this was plenty of time for Jesus' followers to distort and embellish their Master's original words and deeds. Consequently, they insist, by the time the ministry of Jesus was recorded in the Gospels, it had already reached a form that was partly fictional. In short, the oral tradition which lies behind the Gospels is alleged to have been corrupted before the Gospel writers ever "put pen to papyrus."{1} In the words of the Jesus Seminar:

The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for . . . liberation from . . . those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.{2}

Is this true? Did the faith of Jesus' earliest followers really overpower their memories of what Jesus said and did? Is our faith in the Gospels well-placed—or misplaced? In the remainder of this article we'll see that there are good reasons to believe that the Gospel writers told us the "Gospel truth" about Jesus!

Why the Wait?

Do the New Testament Gospels accurately preserve for us the things which Jesus said and did? Many liberal scholars don't think so. They maintain that the oral tradition upon which the Gospels are based became quickly corrupted by the early church. If they're right, then some of what we read about Jesus in the Gospels never really happened. As some of the fellows of the Jesus Seminar put it:

Scholars of the gospels are faced with a . . . problem: Much of the lore recorded in the gospels and elsewhere in the Bible is folklore, which means that it is wrapped in memories that have been edited, deleted, augmented, and combined many times over many years.{3}

This raises some important questions for us to consider. How carefully was the oral tradition about the words and deeds of Jesus transmitted in the early church? Does the evidence indicate whether or not it was corrupted before the Gospels were written? And why on earth did the Gospel writers wait so long to write their accounts?

Let's begin with that last question. Why did the Gospel writers wait so long to record the ministry of Jesus? Let me offer two responses to this question. First, compared with other ancient biographies that are generally considered reliable, the Gospels were written relatively soon after the events they narrate. The Gospels were written anywhere from twenty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. Although this may initially seem like a long time, it's still well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses who could either confirm or contradict these accounts of Jesus' public ministry. By contrast, "The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written . . . more than four hundred years after Alexander's death . . . yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy."{4} Comparatively speaking, then, the Gospel writers really didn't wait long at all to write their accounts.

Secondly, however, we may not even be looking at this issue correctly. As the authors of the recent book, Reinventing Jesus, point out:

It might be better to ask, Why were the Gospels written at all? If we think in categories of delay, then this presupposes that the writing of the Gospels was in the minds of these authors from the beginning. However, this is almost certainly not the case. What was paramount in the apostles' earliest motives was oral proclamation of the gospel.{5}

In the early years of the church the story of Jesus was being told and retold by eyewitnesses of these events. But still, some might ask, might these "events" have become gradually embellished with the story's retelling, so that what's recorded in the Gospels is no longer trustworthy?

To Tell the Old, Old Story

How accurately was the oral tradition about Jesus' life and ministry preserved before being written down? Was it corrupted by his earliest followers prior to being recorded in the Gospels? Many liberal scholars think so. But there are good reasons to think otherwise.

In the first place, we must remember that "the interval between Jesus and the written Gospels was not dormant."{6} In fact, this period was filled with a tremendous amount of activity. The earliest followers of Jesus told and retold his story wherever they went. This is important, for as a recent book on Jesus observes:

If the earliest proclamation about Jesus was altered in later years, then surely first-generation Christians would know about the changes and would object to them. It would not even take outsiders to object to the "new and improved Christianity," since those who were already believers would have serious problems with the differences in the content of their belief.{7}

Not only this, but New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg lists many other reasons for believing that this oral tradition was accurately transmitted by Jesus' earliest followers.{8} First, Jesus' followers believed that He "proclaimed God's Word in a way which demanded careful retelling." Second, over ninety percent of his teachings contained "poetic elements which would have made them easy to memorize." Third, "the almost universal method of education in antiquity, and especially in Israel, was rote memorization, which enabled people accurately to recount quantities of material far greater than all of the Gospels put together." And fourth, "written notes and a kind of shorthand were often privately kept by rabbis and their disciples." Although we can't be sure that any of Jesus' disciples kept written notes of His teachings, it's at least possible that they did.

Finally, we must bear in mind that the Gospels are not the product of merely one person's memories of the events of Jesus' life. Instead, the oral tradition which lies behind the Gospels is based on numerous eyewitness reports. This is extremely important, for as the authors of Reinventing Jesus remind us, the disciples' "recollections were not individual memories but collective ones—confirmed by other eyewitnesses and burned into their minds by the constant retelling of the story. . . . Memory in community is a deathblow to the view that the disciples simply forgot the real Jesus."{9}

What About the Differences?

Thus, there are excellent reasons for believing that the first Christians accurately preserved and transmitted the stories about Jesus before they were recorded in the New Testament Gospels. But if this is so, then how do we explain the fact that the sayings of Jesus and his disciples are sometimes worded differently in different Gospels?

To cite just one example, consider the different ways in which the Gospel writers record the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples on the occasion of Peter's famous confession at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus begins by asking his disciples a question, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke each word the question differently. Matthew records Jesus asking, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13).{10} But in Mark the question reads a bit differently, "Who do people say I am?" (Mark 8:27). And in Luke it's a bit different still, "Who do the crowds say I am?" (Luke 9:18).

Not only is the precise wording of Jesus' question different in each of these Gospels, but the wording of Peter's response is as well. In Matthew, Peter answers, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). But in Mark he simply says, "You are the Christ" (8:29), and in Luke, "The Christ of God" (9:20).

Now clearly these are not major differences. In each case the gist of what's said is the same. But we must also acknowledge that in each case the details are different. What's going on here? If the stories about Jesus were accurately preserved before being recorded in the Gospels, then why are there these subtle, yet real, differences in the words attributed to Jesus and Peter in each of these three accounts? Or to put this question in the words of Darrell Bock, how are we to understand such sayings in the Gospels—are they live, jive, or memorex?{11}

On the one hand, the view which says such sayings are merely unhistorical "jive" just doesn't do justice to the evidence we've already considered regarding how carefully the oral tradition about the life of Jesus was transmitted by his earliest followers. Nor does this view adequately account for both the internal and external evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels.{12}

On the other hand, the "memorex" view, which holds that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' spoken words represent the exact words He spoke on the occasions reported, doesn't seem to square with the actual evidence of the Gospels themselves. The Gospel writers do, as we saw above, report the words of Jesus and his disciples differently, and this is so even in cases where we can be quite confident that the incident occurred only once.

This leaves us with only one more option to consider.

A "Live" Option

Dr. Darrell Bock has persuasively argued for what he calls a "live" option in explaining the differences between the Gospel accounts.{13} He describes this option this way:

Each Evangelist retells the . . . words of Jesus in a fresh way . . . while . . . accurately presenting the "gist" of what Jesus said. . . . [T]his approach . . . recognizes the Jesus tradition as "live" in its dynamic and quality. We clearly hear Jesus . . . but . . . there is summary and emphasis in the complementary portraits that each Evangelist gives . . . .{14}

In other words, the Gospel writers are not always giving us Jesus' exact words, but they are always giving us his genuine voice. This distinction is absolutely necessary. For one thing, it helps explain the observed differences among Jesus' sayings in the Gospels. It also sits well with the fact that most of these sayings had already been translated by the time they were first recorded. You see, most of Jesus' original teaching would have been done in Aramaic, the dominant language of first-century Palestine. The Gospels, however, were written in Greek. Since "most of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels is already a translation," we're not reading his exact words even when we're reading the Gospels in Greek.{15} Finally, Jesus' longest speeches can be read in a matter of minutes. Yet "we know that Jesus kept his audiences for hours at a time (e.g., Mark 6:34-36)." It seems evident, then, "that the writers gave us a . . . summarized presentation of what Jesus said and did."{16}

But if the "live" option is correct, and the Gospels don't always give us Jesus' exact words, does this mean that their reports of Jesus' teaching are untrustworthy? Not at all. The way in which the Gospel writers recorded the words and deeds of Jesus was totally consistent with the way in which responsible histories were written in the ancient world. As Dr. Bock observes, "the Greek standard of reporting speeches required a concern for accuracy in reporting the gist of what had been said, even if the exact words were not . . . recorded."{17}

This is exactly what a careful study of the Gospels reveals about the way in which their authors reported the words of Jesus. Although these writers lived before the invention of audio recorders, they nonetheless strove to honestly and reliably record the gist of Jesus' teachings. We can therefore read these documents with confidence that they are telling us the "Gospel truth" about Jesus in a fresh and dynamic way.

Notes

1. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell You (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2006), 21.
2. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 4, cited in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 21.
3. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 6, cited in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 29.
4. Craig Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 33.
5. Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 26.
6. Ibid., 29.
7. Ibid., 30.
8. The following points are taken from Craig L. Blomberg, "Gospels (Historical Reliability)," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 294.
9. Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 33-34.
10. All biblical citations are from the New International Version (NIV).
11. Darrell L. Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" in Jesus Under Fire, eds. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 73-99.
12. See Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987).
13. The discussion which follows is largely dependent on the essay by Darrell Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels," 73-99.
14. Ibid., 77.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 77-78.
17. Ibid., 79.

© 2006 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Michael GleghornMichael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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