Reliability of the Gospels (II)

Phase 1: Defense of Accurate Recall

From the Mind of the Eyewitnesses to Their Mouths

Skeptical Claim & Assumptions

One might think that providing a defense of this first phase of testimony transmission is unnecessary. There was once a time when all that an apologist had to do was demonstrate that the Gospels could historically be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus. That is no longer the case.

Skeptics today seek to undermine the reliability of the Gospels by claiming Jesus’ followers did not have the ability to accurately recall the events they witnessed. We hear this claim from Bart Ehrman, notorious New Testament critic and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

What then about the Gospels of the New Testament? If they are based on eyewitnesses are they necessarily accurate? Do they in every instance represent accurate memories?… They are not necessarily reliable.

Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels

At first, Ehrman’s claims cause you to think. Are the memories of eyewitnesses necessarily reliable? No. Not necessarily. However, they are not necessarily unreliable either.

It is important to understand where Ehrman is coming from when considering the conclusions he draws. Ehrman is committed to a worldview known as methodological naturalism. For Ehrman, there is no God, no miraculous events, and nothing beyond matter and energy. This assumption about the world significantly affects his conclusions. Here is how:

Because Ehrman automatically rejects any miracle-claim in the Gospels, casting them into the realm of fabrication and myth, there is nothing in the life of Jesus (according to Ehrman) which would make a substantial enough of an impact to be remembered. Ehrman’s Jesus is merely a man and nothing else. And if Jesus were simply your friendly neighborhood Galilean, how could anything in His life be significant enough to warrant accurate recall? This is why Ehrman has no confidence in the memories of the Apostles. He treats them as though the events in Jesus’ life were like recalling any typical, mundane memory such as what you ate for breakfast on the third Sunday of last November.


Ehrman’s Straw Man

As Ehrman does this, he commits a fallacy known as “straw-manning.” Instead of treating the Gospels on their own terms, he does so on his terms. By doing so, he treats them as though they are weaker than they are (raising up a “straw-man” that merely looks like the real thing), making it appear as though they are weak when he knocks them down.

This is not what intellectual honesty looks like. In order to deal with historical texts (which is what the Gospels are), one must deal with them according to how they present themselves. Ehrman’s understanding of the Gospels does not do them justice, for the Gospels tell of a man from God who did and said marvelous things to the shock and awe of thousands. Jesus preached with an authority the people never heard before (Mk. 1:22; Mt. 9:8; Jhn. 7:46). He demonstrated authority over sickness (Mk. 1:34), nature (Mk. 4:35ff), demons (Mk. 1:27), and death itself (Mk. 5:21ff). It is a complete dismissal of their genre and testimony to treat them as the product of distorted memories as if there were no weight or significance to what they are communicating.


Why Jesus Would Have Been Remembered

Not only did Jesus do and say marvelous things, New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, identifies several reasons why Jesus would have been accurately remembered in the early Christian community:

  • The first reason Bird identifies is that, for the early church, Jesus was the bedrock of group and self-identify. He wasn’t simply an acquaintance or close friend to the disciples. The lives of Jesus’ followers were literally transformed and shaped by Jesus of Nazareth.

We should take into account that the sayings and deeds of Jesus comprised the bedrock for the self-understanding of the early Christian communities. We are not dealing with forgettable and trivial details of general knowledge. The faith, ethics, symbols, and praxis of early Christian communities were all defined and oriented around the impact that Jesus had upon them, an impact that was embodied in memories about Jesus.”

Michael F. Bird, The GOspel of the Lord
  • The second reason is that the experiences of the early church took place in the context of community. These stories were not recollections of sole individuals; these were community experiences. The stories themselves were immediately told and retold in this same context (see Acts 2:42). What this provides is a natural checks and balances system. If one story-teller veered from the truth as he recalled the events, another eyewitness would have corrected him.

    It is important for us to understand that as the eyewitnesses recalled Jesus’ life and ministry, it wasn’t done in a remote or isolated manner.

  • Thirdly, there was a repetition to Jesus’ teaching and works. As an itinerant preacher, Jesus traveled throughout Galilee and Judea preaching and teaching. He likely preached the same messages on multiple occasions (e.g. Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, Mt. 5; Lk. 6).

    In addition to His repeated teaching, Jesus performed many works on multiple occasions. For example, Jesus raised the widow’s son (Lk. 7), Jairus’s daughter (Mk. 5), and Lazarus (Jn. 11). Each repeated sermon and work would drive the memory deeper and deeper into minds of those who witnessed them.

  • A final reason why the eyewitnesses would have remembered Jesus’ teaching accurately is due to the fact that Jesus taught in such a way that made his sermons memorable. By employing hyperbole, puns, proverbs, paradoxes, parables, rhythm, parallelism, repetition, and other techniques, Jesus ensured His disciples would not forget His messages.

    Some scholars estimate that as much as 80% of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels contain such pedagogical devices (see Michael Bird in The Gospel of the Lord, 40, 87).

Why was Jesus such a fascinating teacher? What caused these large crowds to follow him? One reason people came to hear Jesus was that many were convinced that God was speaking through Jesus of Nazareth and that what he was saying was indeed the Word of God (cf. Luke 5:1; 11:28; Mark 4:14-20)… No doubt an additional factor that enters the picture involves the personality of Jesus, for his personality gave life and vitality to his message… People loved to listen to Jesus because of the kind of person he was. Publicans, sinners, children, the crowds – all found in Jesus one whom they enjoyed being near… There is still another factor that made Jesus a great teacher… this is the how, or the exciting manner in which Jesus taught.

NT Scholar, Robert H. Stein

A community memorizing Jesus’ teaching is not too much to be expected of an oral culture. It was commonplace for an ancient Jew to memorize large bodies of tradition, as Jewish literature testifies (see 2 Macc. 2:25).


Proof That Jesus was Accurately Remembered

The disciples didn’t have a hard time remembering their Master. We have extrabiblical evidences that confirm they were able to recall specific details of Jesus’ life. For example, the ancient Roman historian, Tacitus, is in agreement with the disciples on the details of the time, place, and governing authorities during Jesus’ execution:

“Their name comes from Christ, who during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”

Tacitus, Annals 15.44

And the Disciples Remembered

Wouldn’t it be great if the disciples told us themselves what it was about the teaching and works of Jesus that made Him so unforgettable? Believe it or not, they have told us!

Jesus’ death shouldn’t have been a surprise to His disciples. After all, He told them repeatedly that He was going to give His life and be raised on the third day. However, seeing their Lord hanging on the cross was too much for them to bear, and the reality of what they were witnessing caused them to lose hope. It was in such a state of despair that the women went to the tomb on the third day. Yet when they arrived, the tomb was empty, and two messengers from God appeared to them.

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you when he was still in Galilee, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” And they remembered his words.
– Luke 24:5b-8

What was the cause of their remembering? Beholding the Resurrection.

John tells us that this was true of all the disciples:

So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made.”
– John 2:22

“His disciples did not understand these things at first.  However, when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.”
– John 12:16

 

The Resurrection of Jesus changed everything for the disciples.  It brought clarity to the strange things they heard Jesus say and do.  Though they were slow to believe and understand, the Resurrection aroused their faith.  It gave them courage to preach the Gospel to the very authorities they once hid from in a locked upper room while Jesus was in the grave (Jhn. 20:19; Acts 3).

What was it about Jesus’ life that made Him so unforgettable?  It was His victory over death.


 

Outline of Posts in This Series

Use the outline below to see where each post in this series lays within the overall defense of the reliability of the Gospels:

Intro to Defending the Reliability of the Gospels

Step 1: Preservation of Eyewitness Testimony

  1. Defense of Accurate Recall (Phase 1)
  2. Defense of Controlled Oral History (Phase 2)
  3. Defense of Accurate Scribal Transcription (Phase 3)

Step 2: Veracity of Eyewitness Testimony

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