***How do we know the stories about Jesus that were passed on orally before the New Testament was written were not changed?**
SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous. Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show. It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge. The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface. So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.
HOW LONG AFTER?
Concerning the Gospels, how long after the events took place were they written down? Weren’t they written too long after the fact to be trusted?
The earliest known manuscript fragment from the New Testament is from one of the Gospels, the Gospel of John. It is nicknamed the John Rylands papyrus fragment, and it is dated to the first half of the second century – about 125 AD. So, based solely on this fragment, this would put the time span between when the events of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion happened and when they were recorded at at least 95 years. Based on internal evidence and other factors, the majority of scholars believe John was actually written earlier, at about 95 AD, which would put it within 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
John’s Gospel was written last of the Gospels, so the other three Gospels were written earlier. The majority of scholars agree that Mark was the first Gospel written, in about 70 AD. This would put it within 40 years of the events recorded about in the Gospels. The vast majority of New Testament scholars, even skeptical ones like Bart Ehrman, have all four Gospels written by about 95 AD. (Most scholars also agree all of the other books of the New Testament were written by that time too. Paul’s letters, the earliest written works in the New Testament, were written in the late 40’s, the 50’s, and early 60’s.) Thus, the four Gospels were all written between 70 and 95 AD — 40 to 60 years after Jesus was crucified.
The important thing to note here is all books of the New Testament were written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It appears it was when the original apostles started dying off — primarily through martyrdom — that the first Christians decided to create some written accounts.
Papias, a second-century bishop in Asia Minor, is quoted in a church history written in the fourth-century by Eusebius that the Apostle John conveyed to him that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark based on information gained from the Apostle Peter. Papias said Mark was “Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord.” Mark recorded “the Lord’s oracles” and was careful “to leave out nothing” and “make no false statements.” So, the Apostle John passed on to Papias that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the Apostle Peter’s testimony, and Eusebius recorded all of this in his history.
WHO WROTE THE GOSPELS?
It’s very unlikely that the church would make up Mark as an author because he was not a prominent person in the early church, and, in fact, there is information about him in the New Testament that does not portray him in a good light, because he abandoned one of Paul’s missions. In fact, later, Paul and Barnabas actually have a serious dispute about whether Mark should be taken on another missionary journey, and Paul refuses to take him (Acts 13:13; 15:36-39). If the church founders were going to invent an author for the first Gospel to be written, why would they choose Mark unless it were true? Why not attribute it to someone notable like Peter or Paul? In fact, why did they not just attribute writings in the New Testament to Jesus himself? Likewise, Luke was not an original apostle, but a companion of Paul.
Jesus’ actual disciples John and Matthew wrote the Gospels of John and Matthew. Again, this means that the Gospels were written within the lifetime of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. Some skeptical scholars would say there is no way for us to know for certain who wrote the Gospels, but any and all evidence we have points towards the four authors the church has always attributed their writing to. In order to dispute this, there must be evidence, not just speculation, but there is no other evidence implying other authors. The four Gospels have always been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
As mentioned above, Mark’s Gospel was written first, around 70 AD, which puts its writing within 40 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, but some scholars believe all of the Gospels were written earlier, before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Regardless, a “broad range of studies” has confirmed that both oral and written historical traditions within “roughly 80 to 150 years of the event recorded” are commonly found to be reliable.
How do we know the information about Jesus was not corrupted before the Gospels were written? Weren’t they first just oral traditions, and can’t oral traditions be easily corrupted?
When modern, literate people think of oral histories and traditions being passed along, they often think of it like that game “Telephone” we played as kids, where one kid would whisper something into someone’s ear, and then the kid who received it would pass it down the line; then, once the last kid gets the message, it has been totally corrupted. Truth is, “Telephone” is nothing like how oral histories and traditions are passed on in oral cultures.
The traditional teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles was first passed on orally and perhaps in written form for a few decades before they were written out as the four Gospels in the New Testament as we know them. The four Gospels show similarities with each other, suggesting that the writers sometimes used the same sources. For example, many scholars believe in the existence of a pre-Gospel written work called “Q,” which may have recorded the sayings of Jesus. It’s a commonly held theory that Matthew and Luke both used Q as a source because of similarities, but not Mark.
There is also evidence of a possible earlier version of Matthew in Hebrew/Aramaic before the Greek version that we know today. With this, each Gospel also includes unique material none of the other three Gospels have, showing that the writers all gathered information independently as well.
Modern studies of oral cultures have revealed the community would have been collectively involved in preserving the stories and teachings of Jesus. Empirical evidence has shown that living oral traditions in Central Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania have very long oral epics and narratives that are able to be repeated accurately — some lasting up to twenty-five hours carried out over several days!
One of my professors, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, researched customs among the Lakota people of North and South Dakota. Their story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought the first ceremonial pipe to the Native Americans, is more than a century old, and none of the multiple story-tellers ever knew the story in written form; yet they all told the story in “remarkably similar” ways, varying only in “inconsequential details.”
Furthermore, since the community also knows the histories, they hold the speaker accountable for telling the information accurately. All of these cultures clearly separate oral material into two categories: historical (which was not allowed to be changed by the teller) and fictional storytelling (which could be altered according to the speaker’s will).
Thus, oral communities have “checks and balances that ensure that the substance of historically oriented oral tradition is not distorted or lost.” In fact, some believe the oral histories of such cultures are more reliable than written histories because of these community checks and balances.
In Jesus’ culture, a culture much more oral than ours today (since it was long before the printing press and the internet), written records were often secondary to spoken narratives. People were much more likely to memorize things than write them down. Oral history was much more likely to be trusted because a person was connected to it, and other people could be traced back from it. Written records, on the other hand, sometimes could not.
In fact, written records probably were shared along with an oral history to go with it. This mindset can be seen in the New Testament as the writers are often pointing the readers to eyewitnesses that can confirm what they have written.
For example, see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which is the earliest oral tradition recorded in the New Testament:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
and that He was buried,
and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that He appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.”
SOURCES & RECOMMENDED: