Did you hear the one about Jesus?
Part 7 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God." From stories told about Jesus, to, written accounts of his life.
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God
Chapter 3: Did Jesus Think he Was God, cont’d
I want to start today’s article by quoting how I concluded the previous entry in this series:
It’s okay (even encouraged) for us to hold out the possibility that the Gospels as we read them today may not be exactly representative of the things Jesus said and did. I know that my old evangelical self fears such a notion, but the past two decades have given me a lot of grace and space to no longer require that everything in the Gospels (or the Bible) must be an exactly fly-on-the-wall account of what really, literally happened.
There are few things as powerful as the belief that you can open a Bible, go to the red letters, and feel that you are receiving the very words spoken by Jesus.
I don’t belittle this belief. I don’t look askance upon those who hold it. I don’t think people are silly or stupid for reading, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and in that experience feel as though they are hearing Jesus himself articulate the most important truths of the universe.
It’s just that, the odds are pretty high (and really really high when it comes to the Gospel of John, which is where that above quote comes from) that Jesus didn’t say many of the things attributed to him in the red letters.
For me it was (and is, still) a big shift in my internal world to be open to the possibility that what I’ve always thought “Jesus said” might more likely be, “How some of his followers chose to recount or capture something that people said that he said.”
Changing how we think about the Gospels from, “literal fly on wall account of things said and done,” to, “some poetic and creative liberties were utilized in the creation of this account” is no small thing.
Today’s article is a bit lengthy (and it still doesn’t get us all the way through chapter 3 🤣) but I want to attempt to convey how the Gospels came to be and why that matters.
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Our Sources of Jesus’s Words
As stated last week, our best sources for the life of Jesus are the Gospels.
They are not “the best” because they are in the Bible (that’s classic circular reasoning), they are the best because they are the earliest narratives of Jesus’s life to survive and be passed on to us today. But just calling them “the best” isn’t the same as saying “they’re perfect” sources. They’re not. If we wanted the best, most reliable account of who Jesus really was (and what he actually said and did) we’d much prefer:
sources that are even older, more closely connected to the actual events (recall last week how I mentioned that these accounts were written 40-60 years after Jesus died);
sources written by eye-witnesses;
sources written by people who spoke the language Jesus spoke (Jesus spoke Aramaic, whereas the Gospels were written in Greek, so right off the bat we have to appreciate that the Gospels involve translation of words spoken aloud); and
sources written by more objective authors (rather than individuals incentivized to convince their readers that Jesus truly was the Messiah).
So no, they’re not perfect sources by any means. But they are the best we have (and, I think, all things considered, pretty damn reliable).
I keep coming back to this, but the fear of the Fundy in these conversations is that if the Gospels (or the Bible in general) is not a perfect, literal account of what really, truly happened, then the assumption is that the whole thing is rubbish and so let’s all just rob banks, have random sex, and watch Netflix till we die!
Whereas, on the flip side, there are those who discover how these “best sources” came to be, and decided to dismiss the Gospels as propaganda and overly biased. They see little to no value in these sources because they’re convinced that they are all written by power-hungry people seeking to control and manipulate folks.
But I think there is a lot of space in between these two extremes, with “exact, literal accounts of what happened” on one side, and, “fabricated lies and manipulations and tall-tales” on the other.
I exist in that space. For me, the Gospels are fallible sources (insofar as it relates to their relationship to “literal, historical facts”) that nonetheless reliably capture the essence of the impact of Jesus.
As I believe Marcus Borg once said, “The Bible is true… and some of it actually happened!”
Pass it On
Okay, back to the matter at hand.
If the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not eyewitnesses, were not from Palestine, and didn’t speak the same language, then where did they get their information from?
I think a lengthy excerpt from Ehrman here would be helpful:
After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. (Page 91, emphasis mine)
This is key to understanding the formulation of the Gospels—which, remember, are our best sources for the life and teachings of Jesus. The people who themselves had experiences with and interactions with and stories-to-tell about Jesus, and who were also convinced that such stories and experiences mattered (because they came to think such mattering had eternal significance), told those stories to others.
Who then perhaps also developed a similar conviction (ie, these stories matter, and the meaning behind the stories even more so), leading them to tell more people the stories they heard.
Who then told more people.
On and on it went, and the stories circulated.
Anyone who became a convert might’ve also then become a teller-of-stories themselves. Since it’s estimated that only about 10% of the population during that time could read or write, the art of storytelling was the only real way that news travelled.
Something to keep in mind: there was no quality control going on. There couldn’t be. There simply was no way to control the narrative. As these stories spread, it wasn’t just the apostles (or even fringe followers who were also eyewitnesses) who told the stories. Eventually stories were heard, digested, and regurgitated by enough people, spreading throughout the various regions, that people were soon passing on stories about something Jesus said or did who were farther removed from the actual events than Kevin Bacon is to anyone in Hollywood.
When this happens, when stories circulate in this way, obviously we should expect details to get lost, forgotten, added, and edited along the way.
This is not inherently a bad thing. It’s just reality.
At the risk of beating this dead horse, though, I want to point out again: to the more conservative, fundamentalist believer, the idea that these stories could’ve been changed in any way over the course of several decades (before they were eventually written down) is terrifying to the point of denial. Which is to say, it’s so unsettling (and potentially faith-destorying for them) to consider that the Gospels might not be exact representations of what really happened, that they will find any other manner of “explanation” to deal with this reality.
Typically that comes out in two ways. They’ll either
Fly in the face of the majority of scholars and insist that the Gospels were actually written by eyewitnesses (including disciples) only a few years after Jesus. And/or,
Insist that the Holy Spirit divinely guided and protected the decades-long story telling process, ensuring that each person told it perfectly, heard it properly, and passed it on precisely.
And then on the other side, the atheist (or just non-believer, or humanist, or whatever... basically, just the person who sees no credibility in Christianity), they’ll learn about the forty plus years of passing on the stories and conclude that the final versions that made it in to what we call “Gospels” must be so contaminated with embellishments and confusion so as to not be reliable or trustworthy in any way.
To state it again, I reject both extremes.
I believe the truth has got to be somewhere in the middle.
Authors Eventually Wrote it All Down
At some point (again, probably around the year 60 AD or so) a guy living in Rome heard the stories and decided to write them down, to compile a larger narrative, and to curate the stories he’d heard and collected into a concise meta-story.
Voila, the Gospel of Mark.
Then, another decade or so later, in another city, a different author—familiar with and having access to the Gospel of Mark, but who was also privy to some other stories that Mark didn’t have or use—wrote his own account, focusing primarily on connecting Jesus to their Hebrew Scriptures (Torah, the Prophets, etc).
Voila, the Gospel of Matthew.
Around that same time, another historian (this guy was not Jewish) set out to create an account not just of the life of Jesus but of the origin of the movement that sprang up in his name. He (we call him Luke), like the author of Matthew, took a bunch of stuff from Mark, but also pulled from some other sources that Matthew also pulled from (scholars call this source, “Q”), as well as some that were unique to him, and he put together a two-part series.
Voila, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.
And finally, another ten or twenty years further down the road, someone wanted to make yet another account of Jesus, but this time take a whole new approach. He was less interested in what Jesus actually said and did, but what it all meant. So he wrote this rather esoteric, highly theological story.
Voila, the Gospel of John (essentially an early example of a re-boot of an existing franchise).
Similar but Different
When properly understood, we should not at all be surprised when we discover just how many discrepancies, contradictions, and historical problems there are between the four gospels.
How could there not be? There are simply too many variables at stake.
That they share much in common makes sense: they were all drawing from the same larger batch of stories about Jesus.
And that they also have material not only unique to their own version, but at times in contradiction to the others, also makes sense: these stories had been passed on for multiple decades, spread out across many many miles and cultures, and were ultimately put together by people who had their own agenda in mind.
(Sidenote: Please don’t hear “agenda” and think I mean “nefarious intentions to deceive and control.” I just mean that, for example, Matthew was written by a Jewish person to and for Jewish people attempting to connect Jesus to their long-held anticipation for a Messiah. Whereas Luke was written by a Gentile person primarily to and for a Gentile audience. Of course this will impact how they tell their stories!)
The last thing I want to address for today’s article is that I’ve often heard over the years that ancient cultures rooted in oral tradition were extremely skilled at and careful to make certain the traditions they told and retold were not changed. This argument has often been used by conservative Christians to enhance the credibility of the Bible. “We can trust these to be accurate,” the argument goes, “because in the ancient world and in oral traditions they knew how to perfectly preserve the integrity and the details of the story.”
Therefore, the argument continues, whereas today we might easily imagine how a story being passed on by people over the course of many years would obviously endure a lot of changes (like the children’s game of Telephone), but it was different in the ancient world because they were exceptionally good at telling and retelling stories with accuracy.
However, Ehrman sates at that this is a “modern myth.” He suggests that anthropologists who have studied oral cultures show that just the opposite is the case.
Only literary cultures have a concern for exact replication of the facts “as they really are.” And this is because in literary cultures, it is possible to check the sources to see whether someone has changed a story. In oral cultures, it is widely expected that stories will indeed change—they change anytime a storyteller is telling a story in a new context... Thus, oral cultures historically have seen no problem with altering accounts as they were told and retold.” (page 93, emphasis mine)
(This was a new insight for me. I had, if you will, believed the “modern myth” of the oral tradition cultures. Flipping this around feels pretty big. Perhaps I’ll check out one of the books Ehrman footnotes in this section. Okay, wait, never mind… when I grabbed the link for that book I saw how expensive it is! Good gravy.)
The four Gospels are our best sources for who Jesus was.
They were created after multiple decades of stories being told and re-told.
Since they were written in different parts of the world, based on different variations of the stories, and for different purposes, they naturally include discrepancies, embellishments, and historical problems.
We should reasonably, then, not take them at face value as giving us historically, fly-on-the-wall accounts of what really happened.
But neither, though, should we conclude that the Gospels are useless as historical sources.
Instead, to quote Ehrman again,
It means that we need to have rigorous historical methods to help us examine books that were written for one purpose—to proclaim the “good news” of Jesus—to achieve a different purpose: to know what Jesus really said and did. (page 93)
We’ll get in to that next week.
What stood out to you in this article?
Does it (or DID it, if it happened years ago) change your feelings about the Gospels to consider them as I’ve outlined above?
READ THE REST OF THE SERIES
Part 1: Did you hear the one about Jesus “becoming” God?
Part 2: We Can't Just Simply Read the Bible (Alone) and Declare It Sufficient for Comprehension
Part 3: The gods, us humans, and all the stops in between
Part 4: Even ancient Israelites saw Divinity along a continuum
Part 5: Humans becoming God(like), plus other worship-worthy-Beings
Part 6: How do we even know anything ABOUT Jesus?
Even if we allow for somewhat more rigorous practices in oral transmission for the NT, akin to most famously Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript (though the work has been strongly criticized by even those who admit he has a point), this does nothing for us in OT textual criticism. We now know from modern studies of the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Samaritan Pentateuch that the careful practices that eventually led to the OT Masoretic Text extend back no earlier than the 1st century CE (and maybe not that far) and that the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible through to at least the early intertestestamental period was very fluid. And the differences can have a significant impact on doctrine. For example, the Septuagint’s reading of Exodus 21:22-23 makes it clear that early-term miscarriage due striking a pregnant woman (before the fetus was “fully formed” per the Septuagint) was considered a tort, not “life for life.” Augustine may have been correct in his preference for the Septuagint over the Hebrew since it may preserve an earlier and better textual tradition! See Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek for more details. In either case, we would do well to take a more fluid view of the text of the Bible to write the gospel on the tables of the heart instead of tables of stone.