The Gospels as Historical Sources

(Chapter3 of "Did Jesus Exist" by Bart Ehrman.)

 

At the beginning of the last chapter I mentioned one criticism I have received over the years that has surprised me. And here is another. Sometimes in a review or an e-mail a reader will provide a short but hard-hitting laundry list of complaints about one or another book I've written, and two items on the list are (a) that I'm needlessly attacking the Bible (I objected to this complaint in chapter 2) and (b) that I am saying nothing new but am merely rehearsing what scholars have known for a long time. I find this two-pronged critique a bit odd for lots of reasons but in particular because the two prongs seem to be at odds with each other. How am I attacking anything if I am simply saying what scholars have long known? I don't see how a critic can have it both ways.

At the same time, I do understand the critique. Very conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians do not agree with what other scholars have long said about the Bible. And what the critics are objecting to is my decision to make this information public. Fair enough. But in my view, the public has the right to know what scholars have discovered after spending countless hours, days, months, and years grappling with the hard issues. And to discount it all as "saying nothing new" is simply an ad hominem attack. My popular books (as opposed to my scholarly books, which are written for the six people in the world who care) are meant for laypeople and so are designed to show a wider audience, in nontechnical language, the findings of true and intriguing importance that scholars have made. How can anyone complain about making the public more knowledgeable?

The same complaint can well be made about the present chapter. In it I do not advance scholarship or come up with some new theory. What I discuss here is common knowledge among scholars in the field. In fact, most of it is standard information that even my conservative critics will by and large agree with, either to their pleasant surprise or to their dismay. It deals with why our Gospel sources are important for the question of whether Jesus existed, and my claim is that once one understands more fully what the Gospels are and where they came from, they provide powerful evidence indeed that there really was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus. Quite the contrary, there are other compelling data to consider. But the Gospels are the obvious place to start.

 

A Preliminary Comment on the Gospels as Historical Sources

As I will try to show momentarily, the Gospels, their sources, and the oral traditions that lie behind them combine to make a convincing case that Jesus really existed. It is not that one can simply accept everything found in the Gospels as historically accurate. Far from it. The Gospels are filled with nonhistorical material, accounts of events that could not have happened. This is shown, for example, by the many discrepancies they contain in matters both great and small. If you have two contradictory accounts of the same event, both accounts cannot be accurate. And once you read the Gospels carefully, with keen attention to minute details, you will find such contradictions all over the map. Eventually these small details add up to big pictures, which also are sometimes at odds with one another.

At the same time, there is historical information in the Gospels. This historical material needs to be teased out by careful, critical analysis. Before doing so, I need to make a preliminary remark about the Gospels as historical sources. Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together and declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated in this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers, and my contention is that both of them are completely wrong. However else the Gospels are used—for example, in communities of faith—they can and must be considered historical sources of information.

At one end of the spectrum, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians often treat the Gospels as literature unlike anything else that has ever been produced because, in their theological opinion, these books were inspired by God. In this view, inspired literature is not amenable to the same kind of historical and critical investigation as other kinds of literature.

I think this is wrong, and not simply because I am an agnostic who does not believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. I thought this approach was wrong even when I was a committed, believing Christian. It is wrong because whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible—whether you believe in them or not, whether you consider them inspired or not—they are still books.

That is, they were written by people in historical circumstances and contexts and precisely in light of those circumstances and contexts. There is no God-given way of interpreting God-given literature, even if such literature exists. It is still literature. And it has to be interpreted as literature is interpreted. There is no special hermeneutic handed down from above to direct the reading of these books as opposed to all others. Their authors were human authors (whether or not they were inspired); they wrote in human languages and in human contexts; their books are recognizable as human books, written according to the rhetorical conventions of their historical period. They are human and historical, whatever else you may think about them, and to treat them differently is to mistreat them and to misunderstand them.

At the other end of the spectrum is another group insisting that the books of the Bible need to be given separate treatment. These are certain agnostics and atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information. As odd as it might seem, the nonbelievers who argue this are making common cause with the fundamentalists who also argue it. Both groups treat the Gospels as nonhistorical, the fundamentalists because the Gospels are inspired and the atheists (those who hold this view) because the Gospels are accepted by some people as sacred scripture and so are not historical.

The (sometime) atheist opinion of the Bible as nonhistorical is no better than the (typical) fundamentalist opinion. The reality is that the authors of the books that became the Bible did not know they were producing books that would later be considered scripture, and they probably had no intention of producing scripture. The Gospel writers—anonymous Greek-speaking Christians living thirty-five to sixty-five years after the traditional date of Je-sus's death—were simply writing down episodes that they had heard from the life of Jesus. Some of these episodes may be historically accurate, others may not be. But the authors did not write thinking they were providing the sacred scriptures for the Christian tradition. They were simply writing books about Jesus.

These authors had nothing to do with later developments, such as that their books were considered inspired and were placed in a canon and called the New Testament. The authors were real, living, breathing, historical persons; they had heard reports about Jesus; they had probably read earlier accounts of his life; and they decided to write their own versions. "Luke" (whoever he really was and whatever name he had) tells us this himself, in the beginning of the third Gospel: "Whereas many have attempted to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them over to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all these things closely from the beginning, to write for you an orderly account" (1:1—3).

I should stress that I am not saying that Luke and the other Gospel writers were trying to present disinterested accounts of the life of Jesus. These authors were anything but disinterested; and their biases need to be front and center in the critics' minds when evaluating what they have to say. But at the same time, they were historical persons giving reports of things they had heard, using historically situated modes of rhetoric and presentation. The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.

Some mythicists, though, do precisely that. As just one example, the Gospel of Luke indicates that Jesus's hometown was Nazareth. As we will see later in the book, many mythicists deny that Nazareth even existed in the days of Jesus, and they refuse to take Luke's and the other Gospels' word for it, not deeming them as reputable historical sources since they are part of the Bible. But the reality is that Luke inherited oral traditions about Jesus and his connection with Nazareth, and he recorded what he had heard. What he heard may have been right or it may have been wrong, but the fact that later Christians long after he was dead placed his book into the canon of the New Testament has nothing to do with it. Luke's writings about Jesus carry no more or less weight than the writings of any other ancient biographer (Suetonius, for example, or Plutarch)—or, perhaps a more apt comparison, of any other biographer of a religious person, such as Philostratus and his account of Apollonius of Tyana.

Consider an analogy. We don't dismiss early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans. We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their descriptions of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources. Contemporary accounts of George Washington, even by his devoted followers, are still valuable as historical sources. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical, grounds.

So too the Gospels. Whatever one thinks of them as inspired scripture, they can be seen and used as significant historical sources. With this major comment in view, what can we say about the Gospels and their witness to the life of the historical Jesus?

 

The Gospels and Their Written Sources

 

Once it is conceded that the Gospels can and should be treated as historical sources, no different from other historical sources infused with their authors' biases, it starts to become clear why historians have almost universally agreed that whatever else one might say about him, Jesus of Nazareth lived in first-century Palestine and was crucified by the prefect of Judea. It is not because "the Gospels say so" and that it therefore must be true (the view, of course, of fundamentalist Christians). It is for a host of other reasons familiar to scholars who work in the field. This opening section will not be convincing to naysayers, for reasons I will explain, but we need to start somewhere, and the place to start is with the surviving witnesses that we have in hand.

We have already seen that historians, who try to establish that a past event happened or that a past person lived, look for multiple sources that corroborate one another's stories without having collaborated. And this is what we get with the Gospels and their witness of Jesus. Our earliest Gospel account of Jesus's life is probably Mark's, usually dated—by conservative and liberal scholars of the New Testament alike—to around 70 ce (some conservatives date it earlier; very few liberals date it much later). Eventually we will consider the question of Mark's sources; for now we are interested in the brute fact that within forty years or so of Jesus's (alleged) life, we have a relatively full account of many of the things he said and did and of his death by crucifixion. (How much of it we can trust as historically accurate is another question, which we will deal with at a later stage.)

It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories of Jesus. This is almost certainly right, for reasons that don't need to concern us here but are readily available elsewhere in a wide range of publications on the New Testament.[1] Some mythicists—as we will see in chapter 7—have taken this critical conclusion to a faulty end to argue that all of our Gospel accounts (even John, which has very little to do with Mark) ultimately go back to Mark so that we have only one source, not multiple sources, for the life of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark's accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus's life, teachings, and death. So while in their shared material they do not provide corroboration without collaboration, in their unique material they do. These Gospels were probably written ten or fifteen years after Mark, and so by the year 80 or 85 we have at least three independent accounts of Jesus's life (since a number of the accounts of both Matthew and Luke are independent of Mark), all within a generation or so of Jesus himself, assuming he lived.

But that is not all. There are still other independent Gospels. The Gospel ofjohn is sometimes described as the "maverick Gospel" because it is so unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.[2] Prior to the narrative leading up to Jesus's death, most of the stories in John are found only in John, whereas John does not include most of the stories found in the other three Gospels. And when they do share the same stories, John tells them in such a different way that he does not appear to have received his accounts from any or all of them.[3] This is especially the case, of course, in those passages (the majority of them) in which John's stories do not overlap with those of the synoptics. It is equally true of John's account of Jesus's death. John is generally considered the latest of our canonical Gospels, dated 90-95 ce. So within the first century we have four independent accounts of Jesus's life and death (Matthew and Luke being independent in a good number of their corroborative stories; John possibly in all, and certainly in most, of his).

Gospels continued to be written after John, however, and some of these later accounts are also independent. Since the discovery in 1945 of the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, scholars have debated its date.[4] Even though some continue to place the Gospel in the first century, possibly prior to all or some of the canonical Gospels, more widely it is thought that in its current form Thomas comes to us from the early second century, say 110-20 ce. Moreover, while some scholars think that Thomas relies on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for some of its sayings—there are overlaps in about half of them—it is more commonly thought that Thomas is independent, that it got its information from other sources. In either event, a good portion of Thomas, if not all of it, does not derive from the canonical texts. To that extent it is a fifth independent witness to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The same can be said of the Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886. This is a fragmentary account of Jesus's trial, death, and resurrection.[5] Once again, even though there is some similarity in portions of the account to what is found in the canonical Gospels, it is widely thought that Peter preserves an independent narrative, drawn from other, noncanonical, sources. There are protracted debates among scholars about how much material from the life of Jesus this account originally contained. The fragment that survives begins in the middle of a sentence during the scene in which Pilate washes his hands of Jesus's blood (a scene found as well in the Gospel of Matthew, but in Peter it is narrated differently and probably comes from some different source). Some scholars think that the Gospel recounted only Jesus's Passion, but others, somewhat more convincingly, maintain that in fact it was a complete Gospel with a narrative of Jesus's ministry as well.[6] In either event, since it is in part or in whole different from the other Gospels, in these passages—and probably in its entirety, though this judgment does not affect my argument—this would be a sixth independent Gospel account of Jesus's life and death.

Another independent account occurs in the highly fragmentary text called Papyrus Egerton 2.[7] Here again it is difficult to know how extensive the full Gospel contained in these partial remains originally was; what survives are four episodes from the life ofjesus, one of which has no parallel in the Gospels of the New Testament or in any other known Gospel.[8] Here then, at least in the nonparalleled story, but probably in all four, is a seventh independent account.

There are, of course, lots of other Gospels, some forty or so, down to the early Middle Ages, that are not found in the New Testament. These include narratives ofjesus as a newborn and as a young child, where he uses his miraculous powers sometimes for mischief and sometimes for good; narratives of his public ministry; narratives of his death and resurrection. Almost all of these accounts, of course, are highly legendary, and with the passing of time they become less and less valuable as independent, historical sources. But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus's death, we have at least seven independent accounts, some of them quite extensive. (It is important to recall: even if some of these sources are dependent on one another in some passages—for example, Matthew and Luke on Mark—they are completely independent in others, and to that extent they are independent witnesses.) And so it is quite wrong to argue that Mark is our only independent witness to Jesus as a historical person. The other six accounts are either completely or partially independent as well. For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.

And that is not nearly all. It may be easy to discount these seven witnesses on the grounds that they are not close to the time of the events they narrate (the earliest is four decades removed) and that they are heavily biased toward their subject matter. I will deal with the matter of bias soon. For now it is important to begin moving behind these independent accounts to see from where they found their information about Jesus.

 

Written Sources for the Surviving Witnesses

 

What is sometimes underappreciated by mythicists who want to discount the value of the Gospels for establishing the historical existence ofjesus is that our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus's death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. But they obviously did exist at one time, and they just as obviously had to predate the Gospels that we now have. The opening words of the Gospel of Luke bear repeating: "Whereas many have attempted to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them over to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all these things closely from the beginning, to write for you an orderly account" (1:1-3).

As we will see more fully in a later context, one needs to approach everything that the Gospel writers say gingerly, with a critical eye. But there is no reason to suspect that Luke is lying here. He knew of "many" earlier authors who had compiled narratives about the subject matter that he himself is about to narrate, the life ofjesus. Since the mid-nineteenth century there has been a wide consensus among scholars concerning what these earlier sources were and what to call them. Again, I do not mean to say that every scholar agrees on every detail. On the contrary, scholars vigorously debate many specific issues. But in broad outline, which is what matters for my purposes here, there is considerable agreement, based on very thorough investigation of all the relevant issues by scholars who have devoted their entire lives to studying the question.

Virtually everyone agrees that Luke had as one of his predecessors the Gospel of Mark. This in itself is a matter of interest since Luke seems to imply, by what he says about the "many" who "attempted to compile a narrative" before him, that he did not consider these earlier attempts successful, that in fact they needed some correcting. That is why he himself (in contrast to them?) wants to provide "an orderly account." If that is Luke's implication, we can infer that he did not have a very high view of Mark's Gospel or at least that he thought it was inadequate for his purposes. And so he produced his own. But he certainly liked a good deal of Mark, as he copied many of Mark's stories in constructing his own Gospel, sometimes verbatim. But he had other sources as well.

One of them I have already mentioned, the no-longer-surviving Gospel account that scholars have called Q.[9] The reason for thinking that this source was written prior to the synoptic Gospels, and that it was available to them, has to do with the literary relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to one another. There is obviously some kind of relationship since they tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence and frequently even in the same words. Someone is copying. Even though Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources, they share a number of passages that are not found in Mark, such as the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes. The two later Gospels obviously did not get these passages from Mark since he didn't include them. And there are solid reasons for thinking that one of them did not derive these materials from a copy of the other. The best solution to the question of where they got these passages, then, is that they derived them from some other shared source.[10] The German scholars who most fully developed this theory called this other source the "sayings Quelle," the sayings source. The word Quelle is shortened in common parlance to Q. Q, then, is the material that Matthew and Luke have in common that is not found in Mark. And it derived from a written Gospel that no longer survives.

Q appears to have been made up predominantly of the sayings ofjesus, much like the later Gospel of Thomas. In the judgment of most scholars, Q did not include an account of Jesus's death and resurrection since Matthew and Luke do not share any stories of the Passion not also found in Mark. In my opinion it is very hard to know whether or not Q lacked a passion narrative. It would have been possible, for example, for Matthew to copy some of the stories of the Passion from Q and for Luke not to include those stories. If so, we would have no way of knowing whether the stories found only in Matthew—including some of the passages in the passion narrative—-were in fact Q stories that Luke simply decided not to reproduce for reasons of his own.

Whether or not Q included an account of Jesus's death and resurrection, it appears that the source must date to a period no later than Mark, and a good number of scholars have dated it earlier, say, to the 50s.

Luke used other sources as well, as he intimates. He doesn't tell us how many. A lot of stories are found only in Luke, however, such as Jesus's parables of the prodigal son and of the good Samaritan. Luke must have gotten these from somewhere else: scholars have long offered good reasons for thinking Luke didn't just make everything else all up. And so they call this other now-lost source L, for Luke's special source. L may have been one document; it may have been a large number of documents; or it may have included both written documents and oral traditions about Jesus (I will be talking about oral traditions soon).

Matthew as well is based on written sources. As pointed out, he used Mark, even more than Luke did, and Q. But he too includes many stories found only in his Gospel: the visit of the wise men to worship the infant Jesus, for example, and the parable of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment. These then must have come from Matthew's special source (s), which scholars have therefore labeled M. Like L, M may have been a single written document, a number of documents, or a combination of oral traditions and written sources.

When dealing only with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the synoptic Gospels, then, we are talking not just about three books written late in the first century. We are talking about at least four sources: Mark, Q, M, and L, the latter two of which could easily have represented several, or even many, other written sources.

Many leading scholars of the Gospel of Mark think that it too was compiled not just of oral traditions that had been circulating down to the author's day but of various written sources. It is often thought that Mark used a passion narrative that had been written years earlier in which the episodes of Jesus's arrest, trials, death, and resurrection were already put into written form. The most recent and most authoritative two-volume commentary on Mark, by Joel Marcus, contends that Mark used a source, or a number of sources, for his account of Jesus's words and deeds prior to the passion narrative.[11] If this is right, then not just our later synoptics but even our earliest surviving Gospel was based on multiple sources.

The Gospel of John too is widely thought to have been based on written sources that no longer survive. As I have indicated, the reason for thinking that John does not rely on the synoptics is that whenever they tell the same story, it is in radically different ways and never in the same words. But scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus's miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus's long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well.[12]

I have been speaking so far only of the four canonical Gospels. It cannot be determined with absolute certainty whether any of the later Gospels—say the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Thomas— go back to written sources although in both of these cases some scholars have mounted strenuous arguments that they do. The most plausible case has been made for the Gospel of Thomas by April De-Conick, who makes a strong argument, based on a careful literary study of the text, that the core of the surviving Gospel of Thomas goes back to a Gospel in circulation prior to 50 ce. [13]

All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said ofjesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another. Let me stress the latter point. We cannot think of the early Christian Gospels as going back to a solitary source that "invented" the idea that there was a man Jesus. The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced. Where would the solitary source that "invented" Jesus be? Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were "many" of them, and he may well have been right. And once again, this is not the end of the story.

 

The Oral Traditions About Jesus

 

The further question that needs to be asked is where all these Gospel sources—-Mark, Q, M, L, sayings source, passion narratives, proto-Thomas and so on—got their stories. This is a question that has occupied New Testament scholars for nearly a hundred years. In the early part of the twentieth century there was a group of scholars in Germany who developed a method of studying the Gospels to address this question. The method has traditionally been called, in English, "form criticism."

 

Form Criticism and Oral Traditions About Jesus

 

The original impetus for the form-critical approach to the Gospels came from a well-known New Testament scholar named Karl Ludwig Schmidt; the approach was developed, in different ways, by the even more famous Martin Dibelius and especially by the most famous of them all, Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the greatest and most influential scholar of the New Testament in the twentieth century. [14]

These form critics were principally interested in knowing what happened while the stories about Jesus were being transmitted orally.

Their assumption was that after Jesus's life, when Christian missionaries founded churches throughout the Mediterranean, stories about Jesus were told and retold in various kinds of situations that Christians found themselves in. These scholars were called "form" critics because they wanted to know how different kinds of stories came to assume the shape or form they have. Why is it that so many miracle stories seem to follow the same basic pattern? A person comes up to Jesus, his or her problem (or illness) is described, there is a brief interchange with Jesus, Jesus agrees to heal the person, he does so by a word or by a touch, and all the crowds marvel. Every miracle story seems to have the same elements.

Or take the controversy stories. Jesus or his disciples do something that offends the Jewish leaders; the leaders protest; Jesus has a conversation with them; and the story ends with Jesus delivering a withering one-liner that shows that he gets the better of them. Time after time, same form.

The form critics were invested in two issues: what was the "situation in life" (German: Sitz im Leben) in which different kinds of stories about Jesus were told? And how did the various kinds of stories assume their various forms (so that there is one kind of form for miracle stories, another for controversy stories, and so on)? These critics did not agree among themselves on the specifics of their views. But their overarching understanding of the oral traditions about Jesus was fairly consistent. The stories about Jesus came to be shaped in the process of telling and retelling, as they assumed their characteristic forms. This means that the stories were changed, sometimes radically, when they were retold, and thus formed over the years. And some stories were made up in the process, developed to speak to the needs the Christian communities and to address the situations they found themselves in. If a community, for example, was facing opposition from the Jews of the local synagogue because they did not observe the Sabbath laws strictly, they might come up with a story in which Jesus himself was confronted by his Jewish opponents over the same issue. And watch! Jesus outshines his opponents by delivering a devastating rejoinder to their objections.

So far as I know, there are no longer any form critics among us who agree with the precise formulations of Schmidt, Dibelius, and Bultmann, the pioneers in this field. But the most basic idea behind their approach is still widely shared, namely, that before the Gospels came to be written, and before the sources that lie behind the Gospels were themselves produced, oral traditions about Jesus circulated, and as the stories about Jesus were told and retold, they changed their form and some stories came to be made up. I have already intimated that this was the case when speaking about the sources M and L, when I conceded that these may not have simply been written documents but entirely or partly oral traditions. This appears to be true of all of our sources for the historical Jesus. They are all based on oral traditions, and this has significant implications for our quest to determine if Jesus actually lived.

The reality appears to be that there were stories being told about Jesus for a very long time not just before our surviving Gospels but even before their sources had been produced. If scholars are right that Q and the core of the Gospel of Thomas, to pick just two examples, do date from the 50s, and that they were based on oral traditions that had already been in circulation for a long time, how far back do these traditions go? Anyone who thinks that Jesus existed has no problem answering the question: they ultimately go back to things Jesus said and did while he was engaged in his public ministry, say, around the year 29 or 30. But even anyone who just wonders if Jesus existed has to assume that there were stories being told about him in the 30s and 40s. For one thing, as we will see in the next chapter, how else would someone like Paul have known to persecute the Christians, if Christians didn't exist? And how could they exist if they didn't know anything about Jesus?

Mythicists often reply that the Christians known to the persecutor Paul before he was himself a Christian—as well as the later Christians in the churches he founded after converting—-did not know anything about a historical Jesus but worshipped the divine Christ, who was based on pagan myths about dying and rising gods. We will see the flaws in this argument later, and we will also note that Paul does in fact talk about Jesus as a human being who delivered important teachings and was crucified at the instigation of Jewish leaders in Palestine. But even if we leave Paul out of the equation, there is still more than ample reason for thinking that stories about Jesus circulated widely throughout the major urban areas of the Mediterranean from a very early time. Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century. These sources are independent of one another. They were written in different places. They contain strikingly different accounts of what Jesus said and did. Yet many of them, independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus's life and death: he was a Jewish teacher of Palestine who was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, for example. Where did all these sources come from? They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. Instead, they are based on oral traditions. These oral traditions had been in circulation for a very long time before they came to be written down. This is not pure speculation. Aspects of the surviving stories ofjesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time—in fact, that they had been around since Christianity first emerged as a religion in Palestine itself.

 

The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions

 

Here is one piece of evidence. Even though the Gospels were written in Greek, as were their sources, some of the surviving traditions were originally spoken in Aramaic, the language of Palestine. These traditions date at least to the early years of the Christian movement, before it expanded into the Greek-speaking lands elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The evidence, in part, is this. In several passages in the Gospels a key word or phrase has been left in the original Aramaic, and the author, writing in Greek, has had to translate it for his audience. This happens, for example, in the intriguing account of Mark 5, where Jesus raises a young girl from the dead. The story begins by describing how the girl's father, Jairus, comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his very sick daughter. Jesus agrees to come, but he gets interrupted on the way. Before he can get to the girl, the household slaves appear and tell Jairus that it is too late, the girl has died. Jesus is not to be deterred, however. He goes to the house, comes into the girl's room, takes her lifeless hand, and says to her, "Talitha cumi." That is not a Greek phrase. It is Aramaic. And so Mark translates it for his readers: "It means, 'Little girl, I say to you, arise.'" She does so, to much rejoicing.

This is a story that was originally told in Aramaic, but when it was translated into Greek, the translator left the key line in the original language so that it required translation for those who were not bilingual. This might seem odd to readers, but it is not. It happens a lot in multilingual societies even today. In graduate school I had a professor who had spent a good deal of time in Germany and was fluent in the language. We too were supposed to know German in order to do our research. But most of us had learned only to read German, not speak it. My professor didn't appreciate our shortcomings, however. He would often tell a joke (in English) about something that had happened to him in Germany, but when he got to the punch line, he would revert to German. It was much funnier in the original, and we were supposed to understand. We would laugh heartily on cue, having no idea what he had just said but not wanting him to know.

That sort of thing happens in the Gospels. The punch line is left in Aramaic. And so, for example, at the end of Mark's Gospel, when Jesus is in his final moments on the cross, he cries out to God in Aramaic, "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani" (Mark 15:34), and Mark then explains what it means in Greek: "which means, 'my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"

Mark is not the only Gospel where this occurs. The Gospel of John, independently of Mark or the others, includes a number of Aramaic words. In John 1:35—52 alone there are three instances. Two disciples have learned from John the Baptist that Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," and they want to meet him for themselves. They approach him and say to him "Rabbi," an Aramaic word that the author translates, "which means, 'Teacher.'" When Andrew, one of the two, becomes convinced of who Jesus is, he runs off to his brother Simon and tells him, "We have found the messiah." Messiah is the Aramaic word; John translates it: "which means Christ." Jesus then speaks with Simon and tells him, "You will be called Cephas." Once again, it is an Aramaic word, which John translates, "which means Peter."

There is very little dispute that some of the Gospel stories originated in Aramaic and that therefore they go back to the earliest stages of the Christian movement in Palestine. This is clearly shown, as well, by a second kind of evidence. Some Gospel passages do not contain Aramaic words, but they make sense only when their Greek words and phrases are translated back into Aramaic. This means they originated as Aramaic traditions that only later came to be transmitted in Greek.

One of the clearest examples is in Mark 2:27-28, where Jesus delivers a withering two-liner to silence his critics. His disciples have been walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and since they were hungry they started eating some of the grain. The Pharisees see this (the Pharisees seem to be everywhere in Mark) and protest that the disciples are breaking the Sabbath. For Jesus, though, as Mark portrays him, human needs (in this case hunger) take priority over strict interpretations about the Sabbath. And so he informs his opponents, "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

That last line doesn't really make sense in the context, for two reasons. For one thing, even if Jesus, who is the Son of Man in Mark's Gospel, is the Lord (master) of the Sabbath, what has that to do with his critics' objection? They are objecting not to what he has done but to what his disciples have done. Even more, the last line doesn't follow at all from the first line. I sometimes tell my students that when they see the word therefore in a passage, they should ask, what is the therefore there for? The therefore in this case doesn't make sense. Just because Sabbath was made for humans and not the other way around, what does that have to do with Jesus being the Lord of the Sabbath?

Both problems are solved once you translate the passage back into Aramaic. As it turns out, Aramaic uses the same word for man and for son of man. It is the word barnash. And so the two-liner originally said, "Sabbath was made for barnash, not barnash for the Sabbath. Therefore barnash is lord of the Sabbath." Now the therefore makes sense. The reason that humans (barnash) are the lords of the Sabbath is because of what he just said: Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. Moreover, now the last line makes sense in the context of the story. The disciples (the barnash) are masters of the Sabbath, which was created for their sake.

Originally, then, this story circulated in Aramaic. When it came to be translated into Greek, the translator decided to make it not just about the disciples but also about Jesus. And so he translated barnash in two different ways, twice to refer to "humans" in general ("man") and once to refer to Jesus in particular ("the Son of Man)," creating a problem in the Greek that was not there in the Aramaic. The story stems from an Aramaic-speaking community of Christians located in Palestine during the early years of the Jesus movement.

I might add that this business of translating the Greek of the Gospels back into Aramaic has other significant payoffs for those interested in knowing what Jesus really said and did, a matter I will address later in the book once I've established more fully that Jesus almost certainly existed. As it turns out, some sayings ofjesus cannot be translated into Aramaic. Jesus could not have said these things since he spoke Aramaic. Let me give one rather famous example.

In John 3 comes the well-known story of Jesus's conversation with the rabbi Nicodemus. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and Nicodemus comes up to him and tells him that he knows he is a teacher from God. Jesus tells him: "Unless you are born anothen you will not be able to enter into the kingdom of God." I have left the key word here in Greek. Anothen has two meanings. It can mean "a second time," and it can mean "from above." And so this is the passage in which Jesus instructs his follower that he has to be "born again." At least that's how Nicodemus understands the word because he is shocked and asks how he can possibly crawl back into his mother's womb and be born a second time. But in fact Jesus does not mean "a second time"; he means "from above." This is what the word anothen means in the other instances it is used in John's Gospel, and it is what Jesus means by it here, as he then corrects Nicodemus and launches into a lengthy explanation that a person needs to be born from the Spirit who comes from above (the upper realm) if he wants to enter into the kingdom of God.

This is a conversation, in other words, that is rooted in the double meaning of the key word anothen, which Nicodemus understands in one way but Jesus means in another. Without that double entendre, the conversation does not flow and does not quite make sense. But here's the key point. Even though the Greek word anothen has this double meaning, the double meaning cannot be replicated in Aramaic. The Aramaic word for "from above" does not mean "a second time," and the word for "a second time" does not mean "from above." In other words, this conversation could not have been carried out in Aramaic. But Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke—and the language he certainly would have been speaking in Jerusalem with a leading Jewish rabbi (even if he were able to speak another language, which is doubtful). In other words, the conversation could not have happened as it is reported.

But other traditions in the Gospels certainly do go back to Aramaic originals. This is highly significant. Aramaic Jews in Jesus's native land were telling stories about him well before Paul wrote his letters in the 50s of the Common Era, arguably from within a few years of the traditional date of his death. One reason this matters is that most mythicists want to argue that the since the epistles of the New Testament were written earlier than the Gospels, and since the epistles, especially those of Paul, say little or nothing (it is argued) about the historical Jesus but instead speak only of the mythical Christ who like the pagan gods (again, it is argued) died and rose from the dead, then the earliest records of Christianity do not support the idea that Jesus actually lived; he was only a mythical concept. I will argue that this perspective is wrong on all counts. One major question, as we will see, is whether there was a common mythology of dying and rising gods. Moreover, it stretches credulity to think that such a mythology, if it existed, played any role in the world of Jesus's earliest Jewish followers in Palestine. In addition, there is good reason for thinking that Paul knew full well that there was a historical Jesus, whom he spoke of and actually quoted. Paul did think that this historical person was exalted to the level of divinity, but to Paul he was not a dying-rising god like those discussed among the pagans, if in fact there was such a pagan view at all.

 

Conclusion

 

The evidence I offer in this chapter is not all there is. It is simply one part of the evidence. But it is easy to see why even on its own it has proved to be so convincing to almost every scholar who ever thought about the issue. We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century. We have a number of surviving Gospels—I named seven—that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. These all attest to the existence ofjesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data—for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Even more important, these independent witnesses are based on a relatively large number of written predecessors, Gospels that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed. Some of these earlier written texts have been shown beyond reasonable doubt to date back at least to the 50s of the Common Era. They derive from locations around the Mediterranean and again are independent of one another. If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another's claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus.

But most significant of all, each of these numerous Gospel texts is based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for years among communities of Christians in different parts of the world, all of them attesting to the existence ofjesus. And some of these traditions must have originated in Aramaic-speaking communities of Palestine, probably in the 30s ce, within several years at least of the traditional date of the death ofjesus. The vast network of these traditions, numerically significant, widely dispersed, and largely independent of one another, makes it almost certain that whatever one wants to say about Jesus, at the very least one must say that he existed. Moreover, as we will now see, there is yet more evidence.

 

Notes.

 

1. See my college-level textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), chap. 8, and the bibliography that I offer there.

2. See Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

3. Some scholars think that John knew and used the synoptic Gospels, but I think this is unlikely. Even if he did, he includes many stories unrelated to those of the synoptics, and in these at least there certainly cannot have been any dependence. On the entire question, see D. Moody Smith, John Among the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2001).

4. For a new translation of the Gospel of Thomas by Zlatko Plese, see Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Apocryphal Gospels:Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 310-35; for a discussion of the contents and character of the Gospel, see my book Lost Christianities:The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), chap. 3.

5. For translation of the Gospel of Peter, see Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels, 371-87; for discussion of its contents and character, see Ehrman, Lost Christianities, chap. I.

6. For a full commentary on the Gospel of Peter, see Paul Foster, The Gospel of Peter (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

7. Translation and brief discussion of Papyrus Egerton 2 in Ehrman and Plese, Apocryphal Gospels, 245-53.

8. This is a highly fragmentary account in which Jesus is beside the Jordan River, in which he may be described as performing a miracle, possibly to illustrate his parable about the miraculous growth of seeds.

9. See Ehrman, New Testament, chap. 8.

10. For a spirited attempt to dispense with Q and to argue that Matthew was the source of Luke, see Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002). As lively as the argument of the book is, it has failed to convince most of the scholars working in the field.

11. Joel Marcus, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols., Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000-2009).

12. I give some of the evidence, with bibliography, in New Testament, chap. 12.

12. April D. DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (Lon-don:T &T Clark, 2006). For the Gospel of Peter, see the less convincing argument of John Dominic Crossan, The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988). Even if one does not accept the extreme views of Crossan about a Cross Gospel that originated before even Mark, which was used by all four of the New Testament Gospel writers, a good case can still be made that the Gospel of Peter is based on written sources.

14. See Edgar McKnight, What Is Form Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).

 

Return to Foundations of Christianity