Three tools scholars use to evaluate the reliability of what Jesus really said and did.
Part 8 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God." The criterion used to measure historical reliability and accuracy.
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God
In Part 7 of this series we concluded with the author’s insistence that we need “rigs historical methods” to help us examine the accounts of the life of Jesus (aka, the Gospels) so that we might, as best as we can, discern between what Jesus might’ve actually said and done, versus what might have been embellished or altered in some way.
For my readers familiar with liberal theology of the past century or so, this post will likely be a recap of what you already know. But I suspect that for many of you this article (like the rest of the series so far) is landing as relatively new and surprising information.
If that is you, just trust me when I say, you are not alone.
None of us (and by “us” in this context I’m referring to virtually all people who grew up in more conservative/evangelical contexts, but also those who might’ve grown up in more liberal/mainline churches but who perhaps didn’t pay all that much attention 😜), none of us knew about any of this stuff until we did. Meaning, if your entire life you’ve just assumed (because that’s what you were told explicitly, or picked up on implicitly) that the Bible/Gospels is simply the record of what Jesus said and did, then both this article and the one before it will understandably sound foreign. Of course they will. And that’s part of the point of me doing this series. Because I think a better approach to the Bible is one that includes the presupposition that these books were written by humans, for particular purposes, in specific contexts, and that they were never intended to be (and should not be held up as) modern-day-variety historical records.
To say it one more time:
the Gospels disagree with each other;
they each have their own unique author/perspective/agenda;
they were written decades after the fact by non-eyewitnesses;
it is natural, normal, and expected for there to be embellishments and mis-rememberings, and editing; and
that none of this means that these ancient books are therefore worthless.
Anytime the voice in your head starts saying, “Woah there, slow down... if what these liberals are saying is correct, and if these Gospels cannot be relied upon to perfectly preserve the exact things that Jesus said and did all the time in every corner of these pages, then that means the whole entire enterprise is a sham!”, anytime that voice pops up—and it will, if it hasn’t already, trust me!—I invite you to simply notice it, thank it for trying to protect you, and tell it that you’re okay right now. That this won’t hurt you.
That voice is there because long ago you were told/taught a very particular belief about the Bible (and God, and Jesus, etc). And key to those beliefs were an additional belief that you mustn’t ever stop believing these things. Indeed, you were told/taught that your eternal destiny hinges on preserving these beliefs. So of course there is a part of you scared shitless at the thought of investigating some of these beliefs. That’s why I say that the voice (thinks) it is protecting you.
But dear one, as I write about in The Shift, there is no angry, distant God who demands that finite creatures such as ourselves acquiesce to a handful of religious ideas. If you ever believed that (and/or still believe it) then hear me when I say that you were given an idea of a god that isn’t real. That isn’t true. That isn’t good.
But it takes time, my loves, to convince those voices in our hearts and mind that we are okay. That that god doesn’t exist. That we can, in fact, explore and examine and audit and play with our beliefs.
My point is this: if this series is a bit uncomfortable for you, then you’re right on track.
Of course it is. That makes all the sense in the world.
(By the way, I’m not saying that I think all of what Ehrman says in these pages is right, either. I’m not saying that my posts or summaries are now the things you should hold fast to and believe with all your being. No! Please, don’t. I just want you to be free of the fear of reading and thinking and asking and listening and wondering.)
Alright then, let me briefly summarize the three methods New Testament scholars have devised when dealing with sources like the Gospels. These three criterion have been developed in order to sift through these ancient books and discern the likelihood of what was actually said or done. Of course it’s not perfect. Of course there will be disagreements. And yet, tools will be needed for such a quest, and I think these three tools are not too shabby.
Tool 1: Criterion of Independent Attestation
The first tool used by historians is to evaluate the authenticity of a saying or event based on how frequently it is mentioned across the sources.
I alluded to this in the previous article, but the Gospels were put together by their authors using a number of different sources or traditions. Mark was written first and was subsequently used by both Matthew and Luke for good chunks of their Gospels. But there are parts of Matthew that don’t show up in either Mark or Luke, and the same is true for parts of Luke. And then there are things that show up in both Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark. And then, well, there’s John, out there with his own stuff. Lol!
What this means is that most scholars have identified (at minimum) the following traditions or source material:
M (stuff that shows up only in Matthew)
L (stuff that shows up only in Luke)
Q (stuff that shows up in Matthew and Luke but not Mark)
The purpose of the criterion of independent attestation is basically if something shows up in multiple sources then it is more likely that that story goes back to the ultimate source of the tradition, aka, the life of Jesus itself.
For example, since Mark, John and Q all refer to John the Baptist, then yes, Jesus very likely associated with John the Baptist.
On the flip side, since it is only in Matthew where we read about wise men following a star to worship a baby, scholars would say that such a thing might have happened, but it can’t be established as having happened following the criterion of independent attestation. Therefore, further tools and investigation are required.
Tool 2: Criterion of Dissimilarity
The second tool is my favorite, and it can be summarized this: if a saying or event of Jesus seems to run counter to what early Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus, or be true about Jesus, then the likelihood of historical accuracy goes up.
In other words, if something Jesus said or did got recorded in the Gospels and would’ve made later Christians cringe a bit, then it’s probably original to Jesus.
The example Ehrman gives is that of Jesus growing up in Nazareth (attested to in Mark, M, L, and John). This is not a story Christians would have been inclined to make up because Nazareth was a small, backwater town, and doesn’t really fit the profile for the birthplace of the Messiah (let alone the Son of God). Another example is the story of Jesus being baptized by John. This would’ve been a strange story to invent because early Christians taught that Jesus was without sin—yet that’s exactly what John was baptizing for: the forgiveness of sin.
On the flip side, stories that line-up perfectly with later Christians beliefs are held a bit differently by scholars. Consider Jesus’ predictions of being arrested, crucified, and then raised from the dead. Now, perhaps Jesus did indeed make such predictions, but also, at the same time, you can easily imagine how later Christians who were heavily incentivized to convince people of the resurrection would’ve preferred a Jesus who wasn’t caught of guard by his arrest and execution, and who called his own shot at coming back from the grave.
“Since this is precisely the kind of story a Christian would want to make up, we cannot establish that Jesus really made these kinds of predictions. He may have done so, but following this methodological principle of dissimilarity, these predictions cannot be shown to have happened.” (pg 97)
The point here is not that something is deemed unreliable if it squares nicely with later Christian doctrine. Just that, since it lines up so perfectly, we would do well to look for other ways to evaluate it’s accuracy.
A quick analogy would be if I came home and found an empty package of Oreo’s on the counter after explicitly telling my kids to not eat them. For them to say, “Dad, we swear, it wasn’t us!” is only so helpful. It doesn’t automatically mean that they’re lying or embellishing, it just means that I would need to use other tools or methods to asses their reliability because of course that’s what they’d want me to believe.
Tool 3: Criterion of Contextual Credibility
The final tool Ehrman explores is when historians compare what Jesus said and did (in the Gospels) with what else we know about first-century Palestine. We must understand the context of this period of history in Jewish thought and life so that we can better grasp the things Jesus said (and/or may not have said).
While, yes, I think we should expect some tension between what Jesus said with how people thought in that day (considering he was a revolutionary, and was intentionally challenging people’s ways of thinking), we also would be wise to have a kind of grounding of what would actually make sense in that world.
In other words, if there was a verse in John where Jesus says something like, “I tell you the truth, whenever you Google your own name, almost no good comes of it,” we would obviously know that was a line added sometime after 1998. An absurd example, but hopefully you get the point.
That’s where we’ll pick up next time as we dig in to a bit of the historical and cultural context that Jesus lived and taught in. The more his words and actions make sense within his own Jewish context, the more likely they are to be remnants of the ultimate source. Whereas, should something reflect ideas not found till much later down the road, the more likely that part might be something the author retroactively added back into the source material.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I’d love to hear from you about how this article (or the series) landed for you.
Is it new/different for you to consider that the Gospels might not be 100% historically accurate to what REALLY was said and done?
How does that feel to consider that?
Do you think it might change your faith? If so, how?
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?
Part 7: Did you hear the one about Jesus?
I love this post. I’ll definitely keep these tools in mind as I’m reading the gospels. The gospels not being 100% historically accurate has never bothered once I noticed the contradictions in them. Also, I’ve learnt that the Passion narrative in the gospels has been used to harm Jews from the few Jews that I follow on Twitter. At first, the idea of major stories in the gospels being wrong scared me but I wrestled with it and I realized that rejecting some gospel narratives is not rejecting Jesus. Since then, I’ve been interested in learning more about the gospels and my heart jumped for joy when I saw this post.
I know enough within my personal life experience that I cannot change the minds of people who read the Bible without using these tools … nor can I change the harm they invoke.
But using these tools keeps me
grounded when I feel bamboozled and overwhelmed by the power of their words and the reinforcement of their tribes…
… and ironically the Bible having been read using these tools actually creates a path way to know what is effective and maybe grant a small amount of comfort knowing that there are others who are willing to go through the work and the suffering, and maybe a knowing that there is hope and life that comes with the challenge and lament.