Thursday, June 11, 2009

Eyewitness control of the gospel tradition

J. D. Walters has asked Jason and me to comment on a post of his:

I don’t have any major disagreements with his post. I’ll just add a few comments of my own:

1.I doubt there would have been much opportunity for legends to proliferate in the NT church. And that’s because the Christian movement started small. In a small, close-knit community, there’s less opportunity for a proliferation of wild, conflicting rumors. The small-group dynamic favors a certain commonality of belief. That’s what holds it together in the first place.

Even if a rumor takes hold, it’s the party-line rumor–not a diversity of rumors. And where you have a small-group with some individuals who are close to the source, it’s easy to squelch a groundless rumor.

As time goes on, if the movement enlarges, there is greater opportunity for diverse views and practices to evolve. And, indeed, that’s what happened as we move into the 2C and beyond.

We see this dynamic at work in religious cults. By definition, cults reflect a high-level of groupthink. Cults can also give rise to rivalries, especially in succession battles, but at that point you have splinter-groups. That is not how it starts out.

To take a couple of examples, some cults, like doomsday cults or suicide cults, can spawn conspiratorial rumors. However, it’s the official rumor. It’s not a case in which conflicting rumors proliferate, and it’s not a case in which a later legendary embellishment eradicates the official story.

Where conflicting rumors can proliferate is during succession battles. Due to age and failing health, the founder may gradually withdraw from leadership. Others move in to fill the void, and presume to speak in his name. His illness is shrouded in secrecy, since access is restricted to a favored few. Rumors may abound regarding his true illness (“Was he poisoned?”), or the way he “really” died.

However, when this occurs, the original movement falls apart. It fissions into two (or more) rival factions which both lay claim to be the true custodians of the Master’s legacy. It is not a case in which a later version of events succeeds in erasing all memory of an earlier version of events.

2.There is also the question of how a legendary account would take hold. Sitting down and writing a legendary account would not, of itself, go anywhere. In most cases, the effort would be stillborn.

It requires a constituency, or patronage, to sponsor a particular version of events. To promote and preserve that version of events. It’s not something that an isolated individual can pull off all by himself. To whom or for whom is he writing? Who are the recipients?

Put another way, it’s not coincidental that “sectarian” literature is associated with sectarian groups or movements. This is in-house literature, with a built-in constituency. They have to keep it alive from one generation to the next.

Once again, we can see this dynamic at work in the case of various cults or schismatic groups. We can also see it at work in Medieval Catholicism. The reason that hagiographical legends proliferate is because there’s an institution which sponsors them.

3.Another thing we observe in the history of religious movements and cults is a tenacity of belief or institutional inertia. This doesn’t mean that alternative views can’t arise. Oftentimes they do. But alternative views rarely eradicate preexisting views. You always have a band of diehard traditionalists who cling to the original version of events–at any cost.

If there comes a point where they are outnumbered and lose the turf war, they don’t capitulate. Rather, they form a breakaway movement and continue to hand down their venerable traditions.

So even if legendary accounts did arise at a later date, this doesn’t mean that would uproot the primitive Jesus traditon.

4.I agree with Walters’ third point, which is his central point. And I’d like to briefly elaborate on that point.

i) Why are critics skeptical of the canonical gospels? One reason is the supernatural element. And they frequently tie this to the dating of the Gospels, under the assumption that a miraculous story must represent a later legendary embellishment. But even if you deny the occurrence of miracles or other supernatural events (e.g. possession and exorcism), it’s quite possible to have contemporaneous reports of miraculous events. Indeed, the potential documentation is vast. To take just one example of many, cf. D. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Eerdmans 2009), 66-78.

ii) And, of course, the skeptics operate from the Humean maxim that miracles are inherently implausible. Hence, any reported miracle must overcome a tremendous presumption against its occurrence. But that simply begs the question.

For the most part, critics are skeptical of miracles because they have no experience of miracles. And their skepticism is self-reinforcing inasmuch as they avoid situations in which they might encounter miracles–or encounter others who encounter miracles. So they inhabit a vicious circle.

iii) In addition, it’s striking to see the role of miracles in the canonical Gospels. Miracles obviously serve an apologetic purpose. And a skeptic might discount them for that very reason.

Yet the Gospel writers record a wide variety of reactions to the miracles of Jesus. But if the Gospel writers were fabricating miracles to make the case for Jesus, then you’d expect the reported witnesses to find these demonstrations utterly convincing. Yet, in numerous cases, the miracles of Jesus don’t have that effect. Hence, the gospel writers record miracles, not simply because they perform an apologetic function–since, in many cases, they fail to achieve that aim, even within the narrative, where the narrator has complete control over the reaction of the characters–but because these events really took place.

iv) I’d also note that John presents a paradox for the theory of legendary embellishment. On the one hand, skeptics regard his gospel as the latest of the canonical gospels. And one reason they date is late is because they regard his high Christology as a legendary embellishment.

On the other hand, John has far fewer miracles than Mark–which skeptics regard as the earliest of the canonical gospels. Yet skeptics treat reported miracles as a telltale sign of legendary embellishment.

v) Skeptics also make the arbitrary assumption that the Jesus tradition must have undergone decades of creative oral manipulation before it was eventually committed to writing. I’ve never found this assumption to be the least bit plausible. If someone could write a gospel in AD 90, he could write a gospel in AD 50. It’s not as if Jews and Christians were all illiterate until they suddenly discovered the art of writing after the fall of Jerusalem.

For more on this issue, cf. A. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (NYU 2000).

iv) Skeptics make the further assumption that if an author believes in what he says, and if he is writing to persuade others, then his writing lacks historical value. But this is yet another artificial and completely implausible assumption. Indeed, it’s self-refuting. Imagine if we applied that principle to the skeptical literature itself?

On a positive note:

v) The conventional solution to the Synoptic Problem supplies an external check on Matthew and Luke. As one scholar notes, “When we make a close scrutiny of Matthew and Luke at work on the text of Mark, we discover them to be careful scribes who do not exaggerate the claims of Jesus in the way they present them…Since at the point where we can check them–namely, in their work on Mark, Matthew and Luke–they prove trustworthy, we are encouraged about their use of other sources at their disposal,” P. Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (IVP 2003), 94.

iv) What about Mark, as an underlying source? Various scholars have done a fine job of documenting the historical character of his gospel. For example:

P. Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans 2009), chapter 5.

R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006).

M. Casey, Aramaic sources of Mark’s Gospel (Cambridge 1998).

v) What about John? Here I’d say two things:

a) Once again, various scholars have done a good job of documenting the historical character of his gospel. To take one example:

P. Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans 2009), chapter 7.

b) In addition, I’m struck by the number of editorial asides we find in the Gospel of John. As one scholar explains, in a useful tabulation of their occurrences, “Note that this literary device enables John to distinguish between his narrative proper and his own clarifying comments while still helping his readers along as he sees fit…By these asides, the evangelist is able to remove ignorance on part of his readers with regard to terminology or topography, to alleviate the possible perception of inconsistency in his presentation of events, and to highlight important theological motifs such as people’s misunderstanding or Jesus’ supernatural foreknowledge of events,” A. Köstenberger, Encountering John (Baker 2003), 250-52.

What’s striking about this literary device is what it presupposes. It presupposes a conscious and conscientious distinction between what was originally said and done, and John’s own narrative. A distinction between the historical event and the subsequent record of the event. A distinction between the time of the event and the time of writing.

But if, as the liberals would have it, John is inventing various speeches and incidents, then there would be no need to draw this awkward distinction–between his words and the words of Jesus; between the voice of Jesus and the voice of the narrator. What we would expect, rather, is a seamless narrative in which authorial interpretation was fully integrated into the narration of events.

5.Finally, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that all we had at our disposal were tendentious accounts. Even if we had no external check on our sources, could we detect the bias?

For example, I sometimes ask myself what if the NYT was my only source of information about the war on terror. Could I detect the bias?

There are ways in which that can be done. To take two examples:

i) Tendentious accounts are typically hagiographic. Everything is black and white: heroes and villains. Nothing in-between.

But the Gospels record a spectrum of individuals whose reactions to Jesus range along a spectrum. This is even true in how they present the disciples.

ii) Likewise, tendentious accounts lack psychological realism. They impute implausible motives to their characters. No one ever has mixed motives. It’s pure good versus pure evil. No complexity. No hesitation. No vacillation. One side always lies while the other side always seeks to expose their lies. A conspiratorial, Manichean outlook on life.

By contrast, the canonical Gospels depict people acting in ways real people act in a fallen world. And this includes the good guys as well as the bad guys–not to mention the bystanders.


  1. I would add the following, some of which builds on what's already been said:

    - The same questions can be asked in other historical contexts. What about false rumors concerning Greek history, Roman history, Jewish history, American history, etc.? Do critics of Christianity apply their reasoning to those other contexts?

    - As J.D. mentions, not all historical facts are of equal worth. A core of information can be reliably preserved at the same time that lesser details aren't reliably preserved. As I noted in an earlier discussion with J.D., once we accept some of the facts that are credibly reported by the early Christians, such as Jesus' fulfillment of some prophecies, His resurrection, and what He taught about apostolic authority, a case can be made for the scriptural status of the New Testament documents. Once that factor is involved, then we have more reason to trust the authors and to trust them on details, not just generalities or a core of information.

    - Some non-Christian sources were eyewitnesses as well. Just as the early Christians were interested in telling their side of the story and passing on information from one generation to another, so were the early opponents of Christianity. One of the checks on the spreading of information within Christian circles would be interaction with non-Christian sources. Even professing Christian groups had reasons to be critical of one another. Heretics who opposed Paul had an interest in what was claimed about him, heretics who rejected a particular gospel had an interest in what was claimed about that document, etc. I've written some articles on that sort of hostile corroboration of Christianity, and I can provide links if anybody is interested.

    - J.D. mentioned networking and gave some examples from the writings of Paul. I'll repost a quote from Craig Keener that I often cite, since it gives more examples than what J.D. discusses:

    "Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius' letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John’s Gospel and the 'postapostolic' period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'" (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 41-42)

    (continued in next post due to Blogger's space limitation)

  2. (continued from last post)

    - We have a large amount of information about the claims that circulated in the earliest generations of church history. In addition to the New Testament examples J.D. cited, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and other early Christian sources discuss a vast amount of claims and counterclaims that were circulating in their day and in earlier generations. Justin Martyr gives us some of the details of disputes between Jews and Christians regarding the meaning of particular Old Testament passages, Irenaeus discusses a large variety of heretical beliefs in detail, Origen interacts at length with a treatise written against Christianity by a second-century source, etc. Anybody who has read much of the patristic literature should know that there are many places where even highly obscure beliefs are mentioned and interacted with. We hear of the theory that Revelation was written by Cerinthus, we hear of a minor dispute over whether Paul wrote 2 Timothy, etc. We don't have every conceivable piece of information we'd like to have. The same is true of Greek history, American history, etc. But we have enough information, and we see enough interest among the early sources in discussing such things, to place a heavy burden on the shoulders of those who want to argue for a theory that leaves no trace in the historical record where so many sources would have been in a good position to know about and discuss what the theory implies. The early Christians seem to have had the interest and means to hear about the claims that were circulating about Christianity in a wide variety of contexts.

    - Sometimes the ancient sources tell us that a particular issue was undisputed or nearly undisputed. There seems to have been universal or nearly universal agreement early on concerning some aspects of Christianity, including points that modern critics sometimes dispute, such as Jesus' existence, the empty tomb, and the authorship of some of the New Testament documents. If such beliefs originated as false rumors, then those rumors must have succeeded in uprooting and replacing the truth across a wide spectrum of locations, individuals, communities, belief systems, etc. That's unlikely.

  3. Thanks Steve and Jason, very good additional comments.

    I would add to Jason that my point wasn't that some 'core' facts are reliably preserved whereas some lesser details weren't, although I would also agree with that: my point was that these facts need only have been preserved accurately in certain important contexts, so that regardless of the credulity of the common believers, for someone with time and resources and desire to carefully investigate, the genuine facts were available. But thanks for your additional examples of the extensive interaction between Christians and between Christians and the outside world.

    I think evangelicals in many cases have let the ball down in historical argumentation and consistently underestimate the resourcefulness of the skepticism they are trying to overcome. They stick with their bullet point arguments, trying to argue a priori for the reliability of certain key events, whereas what is needed is a more comprehensive historical approach that is rigorous in placing early Christian literature within a reliable time frame and assessing the availability of reliable information to the evangelists. Luckily some scholars, like Keener, are wising up to that and taking a much broader look at a much wider range of material. I hope as time and resources allow to do a comprehensive examination of the primary sources myself. I think I'm getting a feel for them as well as the strengths and weaknesses of current apologetic approaches.