Tag Archives: inspiration

Who Selected the Documents That Are Included in the Bible?

The 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament are the only writings Christians consider fully inspired. The books that are in our present Old Testament were universally accepted at the time of Christ and endorsed by Him. In fact, there are nearly 300 quotations from the Old Testament books in the New Testament.

A number of books that are considered valuable but not inspired are found in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Bibles. These books are called the Apocrypha (which means “hidden,” “secret,” or “profound”). The Apocrypha was accepted by the council of Carthage, but was not accepted by many important church leaders, including Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. 1

Although the New Testament Canon was officially confirmed in its present and final form by the third council of Carthage in 397, the 27 documents it contains were accepted as authoritative from the very beginning.

The New Testament is solidly rooted in history. It revolves around the death, burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not even the rationalist critics of the 19th century could find reason to question Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians, and it has been acknowledged as the earliest written testimony of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declared:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been rasied, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (vv. 16-19).

First-century Christians circulated documents—either written or approved by the apostles—which contained an authoritative explanation of the accounts concerning Jesus’ life and teaching. These documents often quoted from each other and presented the same gospel message from different perspectives and in different styles. Hundreds of other documents were written and circulated, but the church quickly rejected spurious documents and established the authority of those that were genuine.

  1. “Augustine alone of ancient authors, and the councils of Africa which he dominated, present a different picture. Augustine specifically accepted the apocryphal books and gives the total number as forty-four. He is the only ancient author who gives a number different from the twenty-two or twenty-four book reckoning. The list includes Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras (the book composed of part of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus. The Local councils of Carthage and Hippo, dominated by Augustine, included the same books. This listing prob. agreed with the ideas of Pope Damasus who dominated the local council of Rome at 382. It will be remembered that it was Damasus who urged Jerome to translate also the apocryphal books for his Vulgate. Jerome did so with the explicit declaration that they were not canonical.
    “Green (op. cit. 168-174) discusses the witness of Augustine and points out that Augustine seems to vacillate. Green quotes Augustine; ‘What is written in the book of Judith the Jews are truly said not to have received into the canon of Scripture’ (Augustine, City of God xviii, 260). ‘After Malachi, Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra, they had no prophets until the advent of the Savior’ (id. xvii, last ch.). He was well aware that Maccabees were after the cessation of prophecy. Green concludes that Augustine was using ‘canonical’ in the sense of books which may be read in the churches without putting them all on an equal plane.” Excerpted from an article by R.L. Harris (“Canon of the Old Testament”) in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Back To Article
Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 2.00 out of 5)

How Can I Be Sure of the Bible’s Moral and Spiritual Reliability?

There are many factors that give the Bible unparalleled moral and spiritual authority. The Old and New Testaments are deeply rooted in a historical and geographical record that is linked to laws, poetry, and predictions that express timeless life-changing wisdom. Even the parts of the Old Testament with parallels in Mesopotamian literature (the creation story, the story of the flood, etc.) are incomparably superior to the pagan versions.

1 Although it is an ancient document, its realism is stunning and contemporary. The records of the Bible portray people in all of their complexity and inconsistency, with not only their achievements but also their sins—and the consequences of their sins—clearly displayed.2 J. B. Phillips expressed in a few words what countless others have noticed about the New Testament: It has the “ring of truth.” There are few people of any religious tradition who are familiar with it that don’t hold it in high esteem. Further, the historical accuracy of Scripture has been demonstrated time and again—often to the surprise of skeptical scholars.

The authority of the Bible is by far the most well-attested document to come out of ancient times. The reliability of the Old Testament was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a remarkable collection of ancient documents found preserved in caves in the Judean desert in the mid-20th century. The age of these documents, which included large portions of the Old Testament, was determined by several independent evidences, including:

  • Carbon 14 tests made on the linen wrappings of the scrolls.
  • Coins associated with the scrolls, which date from 325 BC to AD 68.
  • The type of pottery found with the scrolls.
  • Comparative paleography (science of handwriting), a science which has already been well-established for many generations.
  • Linguistic analysis of Aramaic documents found in the caves.

What made the Dead Sea Scrolls such a remarkable find in confirmation of the reliability of the Old Testament was the fact that prior to their discovery the earliest text in Hebrew, the Masoretic text, dated only to the 10th century AD. Biblical scholar Gleason Archer noted that in spite of 1,000 years separating the Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, “The texts from Qumran proved to be word-for-word identical to our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted primarily of obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations” (Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1974], p. 25).

Similarly, no serious scholar, Christian or non-Christian, has historical grounds to doubt that the modern New Testament—regardless of translation—corresponds closely to the original form in which it was written. In his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell quotes a number of authorities on the reliability of our Bible. Here he quotes scholar A. T. Robertson:

“There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of the early Christian writers.”

Historical evidence for the reliability of the text is overwhelming. But its spiritual authority can only be seen by someone who is seeking truth. It would require thousands of pages just to list the names of the outstanding people in every area of human endeavor who have looked to Scripture for their ultimate values. A random list of just a few might include:

  • Philosophy: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard
  • Science: Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal
  • Music: J. S. Bach
  • Literature: Dante Alighieri, John Donne, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R Tolkien, C. S. Lewis
  • Politics: William Wilberforce, William Gladstone, Abraham Kuyper

The fact that the Bible provided the foundation for the personal values of some of the greatest figures of Western history doesn’t constitute a “proof” of its authority. But, along with the Bible’s age, textual reliability, and character as great literature, its appeal to such people certainly calls for an open-minded, respectful approach to its contents.

  1. Anglican physicist/theologian/priest John Polkinghorne remarks on the value of scholarly comparison between ancient biblical and Mesopotamian texts:
    Those who disdain a scholarly engagement with the same text will also miss the fact that, though the accounts are clearly influenced to a degree by neighbouring Near Eastern cosmogonies, they differ in a most marked and important way from those other creation stories. It is deeply impressive that tales of conflict among the gods, with Marduk fighting Tiamath and slicing her dead body in half from which to form the earth and sky, are replaced by a sober account in which the one true God alone is the Creator, bringing creation into being by the power of the divine word. Equally significant is the insight that human beings are not destined to be the slaves of the gods (as in the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish), but are created in the image of God and given a blessing so that they may fulfill the command, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 ). (Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality, pp. 44-45). Back To Article
  2. To have a clear understanding of biblical authority, it is important to understand the nature of biblical inspiration. Inspiration has two aspects. One is its authority in providing truth without error in the words of Scripture. Scripture is truly the written Word of God. The other aspect of inspiration is that it was written by human beings who wrote with their own vocabulary, cultural background, and personal style. This fact does not controvert inspiration. Just as Christ was both truly man and truly God, the divine element in inspiration doesn’t exclude the human limitations of the Bible’s writers. For a clear discussion of the topic of inerrancy from a theological perspective, we recommend that you buy or borrow a copy of Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. This theology originally came out in a 3-volume set, but currently is being offered in one volume. His discussion of inerrancy can be found in chapter 10, “The Dependability of God’s Word: Inerrancy.”  Back To Article
Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 3.67 out of 5)

Does The Fact That Few Ancient Non-Christian Sources Refer To Christ Imply He Is Legendary?

Why should anyone expect mention of Jesus in surviving Roman and Greek literature? Palestine was a relatively minor province on the periphery of Roman/Hellenistic civilization. Christianity would have been viewed as a minor Jewish sect, greatly overshadowed by the explosive Jewish politics that led to the Jewish uprisings and wars of the late first and early second centuries.

Although there is little reason to expect non-Christian writers to notice and write about Jesus Christ and the church, there were some who did.

The renowned Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, included the following passage in his “Annals,” written early in the second century:

Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome had taken place by order], Nero substituted as culprits, and punished in the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (Tacitus, Annals, trans. C. H. Moore and J. Jackson, LCL, reprint ed. [Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1962], 283)

The most important Jewish historian of the first century was Flavius Josephus. He wrote:

When, therefore, Ananus [the high priest] was of this [angry] disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road. So he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James. (Antiquities 20.9.1)

There were numerous second- through fifth-century critics of the Christian faith who denied that Jesus was what Christians believed him to be, including Trypho, Pliny, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. But none of them questioned Jesus’ historical existence.1

Even Jewish rabbinical tradition, although extremely hostile to Christianity and Jesus, clearly considered Jesus a real person.2

Lee Strobel, a professional journalist who wrote one of the most readable books on the reliability of the scriptural Jesus tradition, The Case for Christ, writes:

“We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion,” said Edwin Yamauchi. Sources from outside the Bible corroborate that many people believed Jesus performed healings and was the Messiah, that he was crucified, and that despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed he was still alive, worshiped him as God. (Zondervan, p. 260)

There are other possible ancient references to Jesus as an historic personage, but Christian evidences remain the most significant, and naturally so. The disciples of Christ were obviously the most motivated to write about Him.

There is no significant question about the authorship and dating of most of Paul’s epistles, the first-century dating of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the dating and historical accuracy of the book of Acts, or the dating and authorship of many other Christian writings (all of which quote the Gospels and Paul’s epistles copiously) dating from the end of the first century on.

Even unbelieving and skeptical participants of the “Jesus Seminar” acknowledge that Jesus was a real, historical person. Given the strength of Christian textual and historical evidence, claiming that there isn’t much corroborating evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources is more of an excuse for ignoring Christian sources than a significant criticism.

  1. Trypho, recorded in Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” denies that Jesus was Christ, but acknowledges Jesus’ historical existence. Pliny the Younger, a Roman senator and governor, refers to Christians as “reciting a hymn antiphonally to Christus as if to a god.” Celsus made the claim (echoed in the Talmud) that Jesus was a sorcerer and a bastard. Back To Article
  2. “The Talmudic stories make fun of Jesus’ birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater. They subvert the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection and insist that he got the punishment he deserved in hell—and that a similar fate awaits his followers.
    “Schaefer contends that these stories betray a remarkably high level of familiarity with the Gospels—especially Matthew and John—and represents a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives.” (From the jacket summary of the content of Peter Schaefer’s book, Jesus in the Talmud.) Back To Article
Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 3.00 out of 5)

Why Didn’t Paul Quote Jesus?

Doesn’t the fact that Paul didn’t quote Jesus show that he wasn’t interested in Him as a real person but only as a means of promoting his new faith in a (metaphorically) “risen Christ”?

Christians have long assumed that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters were written to illustrate and apply the things Jesus taught through His words and deeds. Both Acts and the epistles of Paul are Jesus-centered and consistent with all that Jesus taught. Acts describes the emergence of the apostolic church and Paul explains the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that made them easily accessible to the diverse Gentile communities of the Roman Empire. In neither case would it have been practical for Luke or Paul to duplicate the detailed records of Jesus’ teaching and ministry that were cherished and carefully preserved by the church.

This argument that Paul must not have been concerned with Jesus as a real person because he didn’t quote Him is based on the underlying assumption that the Gospels’ description of Jesus isn’t accurate. Assuming that a miracle-working Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God with the authority to forgive sin could not really have existed, it offers an alternative explanation for how the Jesus tradition came into being. It claims that Paul created an entirely new religion about Jesus based on his own religious experience expressed in terms common to the religious and philosophical language of his day, transforming a popular teacher into a godlike mythological figure. It postulates that the whole Christian community eventually began to view Jesus in Paul’s mythologized way so that when the four Gospels were eventually written they didn’t contain accurate historical recollections of Jesus’ real life and deeds, but a collection of stories constructed around Paul’s imaginary Jesus.

To hold this view requires a number of closely related, highly questionable assumptions. A number of ATQs have been written that relate to the practical question of whether first-generation disciples and followers of Jesus would have been willing to view Him as worthy of worship and “resurrected from the dead” if His body remained decomposing in its tomb.1 But there are other reasons the idea that Paul invented Christianity doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a common reason given for questioning the accuracy of the Gospel accounts was that a semi-literate, primarily oral society wouldn’t be able to preserve an accurate group memory of an historic event like Jesus’ life and ministry. In recent decades, studies of how historical traditions are passed along in oral societies have demonstrated that group memory is capable of equaling or exceeding the accuracy of modern historians.

Orality studies have confirmed over and over again that [oral traditions] can, in fact, be examples of intentionally transmitted historical material. Indeed, as we have already shown, such studies frequently have confirmed that these traditions are capable of reliably transmitting historical material as well as (some would claim even better than) modern literate historians (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, p. 390).

The gospel was important to the first Christians. Their identities and lives’ purposes depended on it, and they were willing to die for it. They based their lives on its underlying story, a narrative that formed the cognitive basis of their faith.

We know that the gospel, the “good news” (defined by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7), was attracting believers to the apostolic church at a rate that alarmed the Jewish leadership group to which Paul originally belonged. Paul doubtlessly knew what Christians believed even before he began persecuting them. He was a “special agent” specifically chosen to combat the new Christian sect. A man of his capacities would hardly have gone to the trouble of eradicating Christians if he didn’t know—and intensely oppose—what they believed.

Paul’s conversion occurred only two or three years after Christ’s ministry. Recent orality studies (studies of how group memories and traditions are preserved in predominantly oral cultures) have also shown that when a group considers a tradition worthy of preservation, it selects individuals to be the official representatives (tradents) of the tradition. These tradents are the experts entrusted with the responsibility to preserve and transmit the tradition. In the case of the early church, tradents listed by Paul himself in his epistles were apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ’s ministry. They included Peter, John the son of Zebedee, the rest of the Twelve, Jesus’ half brother James, Barnabas, Andronicus and Junia, and Silvanus. All of these eyewitnesses would never have allowed Paul to begin teaching something that changed or distorted the Jesus narrative.

When Paul’s allegiance suddenly switched to the group he had been persecuting (Acts 22), he spent three years adding knowledge to what he already knew. He then met with Peter and Jesus’ brother James, spending 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-19). After 14 years of ministry to the Gentiles, he met with the Jerusalem elders and received their formal endorsement (Galatians 2:1-9).

Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’ story, as well as his ongoing endorsement by the key eyewitnesses of the apostolic church, indicate that Paul was a faithful adherent to the body of preserved knowledge, not someone who started a new Christian tradition that the apostolic church eventually came to accept. But even though there is overwhelming evidence that Paul was faithful to the accounts of Jesus’ life, stories, and parables that were preserved by the witnesses in the Christian community, why didn’t he refer to Jesus more often and use quotations from Jesus when they would have strengthened his case?

This is an interesting question, and it helps put things in perspective to consider that the author of the Gospel of Luke followed a similar pattern of seldom quoting Jesus in his Acts of the Apostles. An overwhelming majority of biblical scholars—whether conservative or liberal—acknowledge that both The Acts of the Apostles and The Gospel of Luke were written by the same author. Yet, in spite of the fact that the author of Acts was intimately acquainted with the events and teachings of Jesus, he seldom quoted Jesus directly in Acts.

The fact that the author of Luke—which contains hundreds of quotations of Jesus—included very few quotations from Jesus in Acts is interesting, but it hardly implies that he questioned the significance of Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Another thing to bear in mind is that letters can’t be considered completely representative of Paul’s spoken teaching. After all, he spent long periods of time establishing and training churches, and verbal teaching would be more likely to include even more allusions and partial quotations than brief epistles painfully written with the implements of his time.

Today, few Christians familiar with Jesus’ teachings quote chapter and verse in discussions of issues with other Christians. Familiar with Jesus’ teachings as well as principles from the Scriptures as a whole (including the Old Testament), they allude to general principles based on a common understanding. This was what Paul did.  Paul made dozens of allusions to the teaching of Jesus without quoting Him directly, just like Christians do today.2When Paul wrote his epistles, the Gospels hadn’t yet been written, but the stories, parables, and teachings that would be eventually written down on papyrus and parchment were already a treasured common possession of the apostolic Christian community. There still were hundreds of eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life adding to and correcting the store of common knowledge and providing the contextual background for everything Paul and other Christian leaders said or wrote.3

In his epistles, Paul made frequent reference to Jesus as a real historical person (Romans 1:3; Romans 4:24-25; Romans 6:4-9; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 9:5; 11:23-25; 15:3-8; 2 Corinthians 4:14; 10:1; Galatians 1:1,19; 4:4; 6:12; Philippians 2:8; 3:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15; 4:14). Paul referred or alluded to the Jesus tradition on numerous occasions, a few examples being 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-26; and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. He even used “ the technical terms for handing on a tradition.” 4

As mentioned earlier, to accept the argument that Paul created an entirely new religion based on his subjective religious experience requires a willingness to ignore an overwhelming amount of evidence. Craig Evans expresses the only conclusion that can be reached when the Gospel accounts are read with minds open to the actual evidence:

Christian faith began with the resurrection of Jesus, whose death was interpreted (in Jewish terms) as atoning and saving and in fulfillment of prophecy. There was no disagreement on this point. All who believed in Jesus and were numbered among his followers concurred on these essential beliefs. There was no other “Christianity” that thought otherwise. The Gospels written in the first century, that is, the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), narrate the discovery of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus to His followers. The resurrection of Jesus and its saving power become the central truth of Christian preaching and missionary activity, to which Peter and Paul give emphatic witness. There simply is no evidence of any other Christian movement in the first generation following Easter that preached something else (Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, p. 191).

The fact that Paul didn’t quote Jesus frequently implies nothing about how important he considered Him to be.

  1. See the ATQ articles, Was Jesus Just a Wandering Philosopher? and Do the Gospels’ Miracles Make Them Legendary Accounts? Back To Article
  2. Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd provide a list of “distinctive parallels between Paul and Jesus” (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, pp. 226-28). Back To Article
  3. “In the early Christian movement we may suppose that the authorized tradents of the tradition performed this role of controllers, but among them the eyewitnesses would surely have been the most important. We must re-mind ourselves, as we have quite often had occasion to do, that Vansina and other writers about oral tradition are describing processes of transmission over several generations, whereas in the case of the early church up to the writing of the Gospels we are considering the preservation of the testimony of the eyewitnesses during their own lifetimes. They are the obvious people to have controlled this in the interests of faithful preservation.

    “In favor of this role of the eyewitnesses, we should note that the early Christian movement, though geographically widely spread, was a network of close communication, in which individual communities were in frequent touch with others and in which many individual leaders traveled frequently and widely. I have provided detailed evidence of this elsewhere. First or secondhand contact with eyewitnesses would not have been unusual. (The community addressed in Hebrews had evidently received the gospel traditions directly from eyewitnesses: see 2:3-4.) Many Jewish Christians from many places would doubtless have continued the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the festivals and so would have had the opportunity to hear the traditions of the Twelve from members of the Twelve themselves while there were still some resident in Jerusalem. Individual eyewitnesses of importance, such as Peter or Thomas, would have had their own disciples, who (like Mark in Peter’s case) were familiar enough with their teacher’s rehearsal of Jesus traditions to be able to check, as well as to pass on, the traditions transmitted in that eyewitness’s name as they themselves traveled around” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, p. 306). Back To Article

  4. “We have unequivocal evidence, in Paul’s letters, that the early Christian movement did practice the formal transmission of tradition. By ‘formal’ here I mean that there were specific practices employed to ensure that tradition was faithfully handed on from a qualified traditioner to others. The evidence is found in Paul’s use of the technical terms for handing on a tradition (paradidomi, 1 Cor 11:2, 23, corresponding to Hebrew masar)and receiving a tradition (paralambano, 1 Cor 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6;1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6, corresponding to Hebrew gibbel)These Greek words were used for formal transmission of tradition in the Hellenistic schools and so would have been familiar in this sense to Paul’s Gentile readers. They also appeared in Jewish Greek usage (Josephus, Ant. 13.297; C. Ap.1.60; Mark 7:4, 13;Acts 6:14), corresponding to what we find in Hebrew in later rabbinic literature (e.g., m. ‘Avot 1.1). Paul also speaks of faithfully retaining or observing a tradition (katecho, 1 Cor 11:2; 15:2; krateo, 2Thess 2:15, which is used of Jewish tradition in Mark 7:3, 4, 8, corresponding to the Hebrew ‘ahaz)and uses, of course, the term ‘tradition’ itself (paradosis, 1 Cor 11:2; 2Thess 2:15; 3:6, used of Jewish tradition in Matt 15:2; Mark 7:5;Gal 1:14; Josephus, Ant. 13.297).

    “Paul uses this terminology to refer to a variety of kinds of tradition that he communicated to his churches when he established them. These certainly include ‘kerygmatic summaries’ of the gospel story and message (for which the best evidence is 1 Cor 15:1-8), ethical instruction, instructions for the ordering of the community and its worship, and also Jesus traditions (for which the best evidence is 1 Cor 11:23-25). It is obvious that Paul took over the technical terminology for tradition from the usage with which he would have been familiar as a Pharisaic teacher. But it is therefore important to note that there is sufficient evidence of this terminology in early Christian literature outside the Pauline letters to show that it was not peculiar to Paul or solely derived from Paul’s usage (Jude 3; Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; Didache 4:13; Barnabas 19:11). The terminology is of considerable importance, for to ‘hand on’ a tradition is not just to tell it or speak it and to ‘receive’ a tradition is not just to hear it. Rather, handing on a tradition ‘means that one hands over something to somebody so that the latter possesses it,’while receiving a tradition ‘means that one receives something so that one possesses it.’ While this need not entail verbatim memorization, it does entail some process of teaching and learning so that what is communicated will be retained. Moreover, it is clear that the traditions Paul envisages require an authorized tradent to teach them, such as he considered himself to be. In one case where Paul speaks of traditions, he makes clear that his authority for transmitting at least some of them to his churches was not his apostolic status as such, but the fact that he himself had received them from competent authorities (1 Cor 15:3). He thus places himself in a chain of transmission (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 264-65). Back To Article

Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (23 votes, average: 3.04 out of 5)

As Oral Recollections, Can the Gospels Be Historically Accurate?

Christians have always believed that though serious questions could be raised about the Gospels, the things recorded in them were true. From the beginning of the church, when the original witnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry were alive, to the beginning of the scientific era, there have always been thoughtful people who realized the astounding, unprecedented nature of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, as modernism came into full bloom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and naturalistic assumptions peaked, many scholars believed that the kinds of miracles described in the Gospels could not have occurred. Influential modernist biblical scholars assumed that miracles simply couldn’t have occurred as described in the Gospels. Explanations usually involved the assumption that some kind of sociological and psychological process could make memories of admired historical figures like Jesus evolve into legends. (See the ATQ article, Do the Gospels’ Miracles Make Them Legendary Accounts?)

These early 20th-century scholars didn’t realize how reliable oral accounts of important events can be. They had little understanding of how accounts of historical events in primarily oral cultures are regularly preserved and passed along with great accuracy.

One of the misunderstandings held by these modernist scholars was that the events of Jesus’ life would have existed only as brief vignettes—“snapshots”—in the memories of individual witnesses of Jesus’ life. They assumed that no overall story/narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry could have existed in the first generation following His death, but that later generations would have combined isolated fragments of earlier witnesses’ testimony about Jesus into a written account. In their view, the written narrative would be more of a reflection of the theological needs and imagination of a later generation than a historically accurate description of Jesus’ life and ministry.

More than a century has passed since Rudolf Bultmann, Albert Schweitzer, and other famous biblical scholars first discounted miracles in the Gospels with the “legendary Jesus” hypothesis. Although our culture has moved from modernism to postmodernism, and naturalism is being supplanted by a more nuanced and complex view of reality, many scholars still rely on variations of their “legendary Jesus” hypothesis. Unlike the modernist scholars of earlier generations, however, contemporary scholars can only continue believing in a “legendary Jesus” by ignoring widely available evidence.1

The basis for believing that a primarily oral culture is incapable of preserving accurate historical traditions has been eliminated. Careful anthropological studies have discredited modernist assumptions that only fragmented memories can be passed along from a first generation of witnesses to subsequent generations and that a unified narrative would be formed much later by people less concerned with historical accuracy than their own theological and cultural needs. Exhaustive studies by folklorists have uncovered examples in cultures all over the world of faithful oral transmission of long narratives, some taking as long as 25 hours to recite. These narratives typically contain “a longer narrative plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story in any given performance.” When the subject matter is of great significance to the group, not only the storyteller but the whole community becomes its guardian.2

Evidence regarding accurate oral transmission of long narratives is only one aspect of new discoveries that confirm taking the Gospels seriously as historical narrative. Other important evidence can be found in memory studies that show the degree to which memory can be trusted, the circumstances in which people remember things accurately, and the kinds of things that are best remembered. These have shown that the kinds of things that are most likely to be remembered—unique or unusual events, salient or consequential events, events in which a person is emotionally involved, events involving vivid imagery, events that are frequently “rehearsed” (retold)—are just the kinds of events common to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chap. 13). Memory studies have also shown that “recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 356). It was exactly the central features of Jesus’ ministry that would have been most important to the eyewitnesses who recalled His story. 3

It has become clear that the first generation of witnesses would have provided a comprehensive narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry. The actual witnesses, not the third- or fourth-generation Christian community, were responsible for the content of the Gospels.4

  1. Early form critics such as Bultmann took it for granted that folk traditions consisted almost exclusively of short vignettes. How could longer narratives, to say nothing of epics, be remembered and transmitted intact orally? While this view is still prevalent today among many in New Testament circles, a significant number of folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnographers over the last several decades have justifiably abandoned it. The reason for this reversal is that empirical evidence has shown it to be wrong. A large number of fieldwork studies have “brought to light numerous long oral epics in the living traditions of Central Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania, for example.” Hence, as the famed Finnish folklorist Luari Honko recently noted: “The existence of genuine long oral epics can no longer be denied.” In fact, amazingly, scholars have documented oral narratives whose performance has lasted up to 25 hours carried out over several days.
    The performances of oral narratives within orally dominant cultures tend to share fundamental characteristics. Oral performances are almost always composed of a longer narrative plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story in any given performance. Because of their length, the long narrative plot line is almost never played out fully in any single performance. Moreover, the degree of detail in which the narrative is played out varies considerably from performance to performance, depending largely on the particular situation of the audience. The narrative schematic itself functions as something of a “mental text” (to use Honko’s phrase) within the mind of the performer, one that is “edited” for each particular performance. There is also a significant degree of flexibility in terms of the placement, order, and length of the smaller units of tradition that fill out the narrative in any given performance. This too largely depends on the purpose, context, and time constraints of the performance in the light of the situation of the community (The Jesus Legend, pp. 252-54). Back To Article
  2. Communities that are predominately oral have ways of preserving traditions faithfully when the character and use of these traditions make this desirable. Such communities have ways of checking oral performances for accuracy. Jan Vansina writes:

    Where . . . the performers intend to stick as closely as possible to the message related and to avoid lapses of memory or distortion, the pace of change can almost be stopped. In some cases controls over the faithfulness of the performance were set up and sanctions or rewards meted out to the performers. . . . In Polynesia ritual sanctions were brought to bear in the case of failure to be word-perfect. When bystanders perceived a mistake, the ceremony was abandoned. In New Zealand it was believed that a single mistake in performance was enough to strike the performer dead. Similar sanctions were found in Hawaii. . . . Such . . . beliefs had visible effects. Thus in Hawaii a hymn of 618 lines was recorded which was identical with a version collected on the neighboring island of Oahu. . . . Sometimes controllers were appointed to check important performances. In Rwanda the controllers of Ubwiiru esoteric liturgical texts were the other performers entitled to recite it.

    In the early Christian movement, we may suppose that the authorized tradents of the tradition performed this role of controllers, but among them the eyewitnesses would surely have been the most important. We must remind ourselves, as we have quite often had occasion to do, that Vansina and other writers about oral tradition are describing processes of transmission over several generations, whereas in the case of the early church up to the writing of the Gospels, we are considering the preservation of the testimony of the eyewitnesses during their own lifetimes. They are the obvious people to have controlled this in the interests of faithful preservation.

    In favor of this role of the eyewitnesses, we should note that the early Christian movement, though geographically widely spread, was a network of close communication, in which individual communities were in frequent touch with others and in which many individual leaders traveled frequently and widely. I have provided detailed evidence of this elsewhere. First or secondhand contact with eyewitnesses would not have been unusual. (The community addressed in Hebrews had evidently received the gospel traditions directly from eyewitnesses: see 2:3-4.) Many Jewish Christians from many places would doubtless have continued the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the festivals and so would have had the opportunity to hear the traditions of the Twelve from members of the Twelve themselves while there were still some resident in Jerusalem. Individual eyewitnesses of importance, such as Peter or Thomas, would have had their own disciples, who (like Mark in Peter’s case) were familiar enough with their teacher’s rehearsal of Jesus traditions to be able to check, as well as to pass on, the traditions transmitted in that eyewitness’s name as they themselves traveled around. This is the situation envisaged in the fragment of Papias’s Prologue from which we began our investigations in chapter 2 (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 305-306). Back To Article

  3. The aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not easily come to mind.
    It is worth quoting again Alan Baddeley’s assessment:

    Much of our autobiographical recollection of the past is reasonably free of error, provided that we stick to remembering the broad outline of events. Errors begin to occur once we try to force ourselves to come up with detailed information from an inadequate base. This gives full rein to various sources of distortion, including that of prior expectations, disruption by misleading questions, and by social factors such as the desire to please the questioner, and to present ourselves in a good light.

    The eyewitnesses behind the Gospel accounts surely told what was prominent in their memories and did not need to attempt the laborious processes of retrieval and reconstruction that make for false memories (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 356). Back To Article

  4. Over the last few decades, a number of New Testament scholars have begun to grasp the significance of these insights. One of the first to do so was Thorleif Boman. Contrary to classical form-critical theory, and in line with recent folklorist studies, Boman made a compelling case that orally recounted historical narratives do not emerge out of independently circulating units of prior tradition. Rather, the narrative and the units inextricably belong together. As Leander Keck notes, Boman’s work suggests that.
    From the outset, oral tradition about historical persons embraces both individual items and an overall picture of the hero. If Mark is the bearer of oral tradition, he did not create a picture of Jesus out of miscellaneous items but rather transmitted a picture of Jesus that was already present in the oral tradition.As the interdisciplinary data on the existence and nature of long oral narratives has continued to grow over the last few decades, Boman’s argument has been increasingly confirmed. As a result, a growing number of New Testament scholars are abandoning the classical form-critical bias against an early orally transmitted Jesus narrative.Joanna Dewey, for example, argues that the “form-critical assumption that there was no story of Jesus prior to the written Gospels, only individual stories about Jesus . . . needs to be reconsidered in light of our growing knowledge of oral narrative.” Dewey has pointed out that an oral narrative the length of Mark would take at most two hours to perform, which, as we have seen, is relatively short by the oral-narrative standards. What is more, as oral narratives go, Mark’s narrative would be relatively easy to remember and transmit. “Good storytellers could easily learn the story of Mark from hearing it read or hearing it told,” she writes. And from this she concludes that, “given the nature of oral memory and tradition . . . it is likely that the original written text of Mark was dependent on a pre-existing connected oral narrative, a narrative that already was being performed in various versions by various people.”

    We now have good reason to think that the relationship between the parts (the individual pericope of the Gospels that have been the sole focus of form criticism) and the whole (the broad narrative framework of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection) from early on would have been both much more fundamental and, at the same time, much more flexible than the modern, literate paradigm (under which classical form criticism has always labored) could ever imagine. Breakthrough theories such as Lauri Honko’s concept of “mental text,” Egbert Bakker’s idea of oral performance as “activation,” and John Miles Foley’s “metonymy” thesis applied to oral narratives have deepened our ability to understand how lengthy oral narratives can be retained and transmitted, and how they relate to the individual parts.

    Working with Paul Ricoeur’s findings on narrative and representation, Jens Schroeter has argued that the narrative framework of the Gospel tradition has no less a claim to historicity than the individual sayings of Jesus. This statement points toward a crucial observation, one that has emerged in recent interdisciplinary conversations around the concerns of history, epistemology, and narrative. The heart of the matter is this: human beings, by their very epistemological nature, generally structure their experience of reality in the form of narrative. We orient and live our lives by the stories we tell. As John Niles points out: “Oral narrative is and for a long time has been the chief basis of culture itself. . . . Storytelling is an ability that defines the human species as such, at least as far as our knowledge of human experience extends into the historical past and into the sometime startling realms that ethnography has brought to light” (The Jesus Legend, pp. 255-57). Back To Article

Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)