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How Reliable Are the Gospel Stories?

Problems & Delays in the Oral Transmission of the Gospels in the Bible


Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet

Everyone probably knows that the first written records of Jesus’ life appear several decades after he would have died. Not everyone seems to understand what the implications of this are. Given such a long time span during which nothing more than oral transmission would have existed, just how reliable can we count on the gospels being? In any other context, people wouldn’t trust them much.

In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, Bart D. Ehrman

No one knows for certain when Jesus died, but everyone agrees that it was sometime around 30 CE. In addition... most historians think that Mark was the first of our Gospels to be written, sometime between the mid-60s to early 70s. Matthew and Luke were probably produced some ten or fifteen years later, perhaps around 80 or 85. John was written perhaps ten years after that, 90 or 95. These are necessarily rough estimates, but almost all scholars agree within a few years.

These are early to mid dates for these events. A few evangelical and fundamentalist theologians may try to place them a little earlier, but there are many who try to place them even later — I’ve seen dates for John going as far as 100 or 120 CE. My point is that we should regard these dates, and therefore the time span between when Jesus would have lived and when the gospel were written, as relatively optimistic:

Perhaps the most striking thing about these dates for the historian is the long interval between Jesus’ death and the earliest accounts of his life. Our first written narratives of Jesus appear to date from thirty-five to sixty-five years after the fact. Thirty-five to sixty-five years. This perhaps does not seem like a long time; after all, these books and Jesus all come from the first century.

But think about it in modern terms. For the shortest interval, this would be like having the first written record of John F. Kennedy’s presidency appear today, thirty-five years after the fact (the gap between Jesus and Mark). Imagine having no other written records — for example, no newspaper or magazine articles to go on, but simply oral traditions! For the longest interval, between Jesus and John, it would be like having stories of a famous preacher from the height of the Great Depression, say 1935, show in print for the first time this week.

I don’t think that many people would put much stock in written accounts of an event 30 or 60 years ago when those accounts have until now have only been passed along through oral stories. People would insist on having some independent, corroborating evidence — and they would be right to be skeptical. Many of these same people don’t think twice about accepting stories about Jesus that were transmitted and then appeared in basically the same sorts of circumstances.

People are thus willing to apply far lower standards of evidence and belief to religious stories than they are to other stories — yet these same people will also often insist that these religious stories and beliefs are incredibly important to them. Maybe I’m just strange, but speaking for myself I would be inclined to use higher and stricter standards when it comes to more important beliefs. I would, for example, insist on better evidence before believing that a relative committed murder than before believing that they ran a red light.

Our actions say a lot about what we really believe. When we don’t demand a lot of support for a claim before believing it, then we are saying either that we don’t really care very much about whether the claim is true or not or we are saying that we don’t care very much about basing our beliefs on solid evidence.

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