Tag Archives: scriptural authority

What Are Some Arguments Used to Downplay the Significance of the Gospels?

The arguments used by unbelieving scholars to discredit the Christian Gospels and downplay their significance have changed through the decades as they were shaped by contemporary thinking. Because they conform to the perspective of people who already assume that the story of Jesus can’t be true and welcome any “evidence” that undermines it, they typically get a considerable amount of publicity and attention. (See the ATQ article, Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?) In time, evidence accumulates that makes their arguments ineffective and untenable, so that old, discredited arguments are abandoned and new arguments formulated. The following is a list of some of the most common arguments against the trustworthiness of the Gospels that are being used today:

  • The fact that the Gospels contain accounts of supernatural miracles and healings by Jesus imply they aren’t trustworthy.
  • The Gospels contain only fictional stories about a legendary “god-man” who sprang up out of the group imagination of a Hellenized population of Palestinian Jews who were deeply influenced by paganism and polytheism.
  • The “Jesus legend” is just one of many “dying god” legends contemporary to the rise of the apostolic church.
  • The fact that few ancient non-Christian sources refer to Jesus shows that He either never lived or was mostly legendary.
  • The fact that Paul didn’t directly quote Jesus implies he didn’t consider him a real person. Paul only used the Jesus “myth” to promote his new faith in a (metaphorically) “risen Christ.”
  • The earliest Christians were illiterates who couldn’t have been the source of the Gospels.
  • Since the Gospels were mostly based on oral recollections of witnesses, they can’t be expected to accord with the genuine facts of Jesus’ life.
  • The accounts of Jesus’ teaching and ministry in the Gospels aren’t based on actual historical events as much as they are on the cultural and theological needs of the first generations of Christians.

It is good for Christians to be aware of the kinds of attacks that are being made against the New Testament and the Gospels.

“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16 RSV).

If Christians are unprepared to give an account for their hope, they will be ineffective and hesitant witnesses. They might even find that their own confidence in the records left by the witnesses of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is undermined.

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Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?

There is an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” The Gospels are so familiar in Western culture, and were so deeply influential in its shaping, that Westerners often fail to think about them objectively. Because they are so close and familiar, most people don’t value them enough even to know what they contain. In his book Ring of Truth, Oxford scholar and longtime friend of C. S. Lewis, J. B. Phillips, wrote:

So long as a man confines his ideas of Christ to a rather misty hero figure of long ago who died a tragic death, and so long as his ideas of Christianity are bounded by what he calls the Sermon on the Mount (which he has almost certainly not read in its entirety since he became grown-up), then the living truth never has a chance to touch him. This is plainly what has happened to many otherwise intelligent people. Over the years I have had hundreds of conversations with people, many of them of higher intellectual calibre than my own, who quite obviously had no idea of what Christianity is really about. I was in no case trying to catch them out: I was simply and gently trying to find out what they knew about the New Testament. My conclusion was that they knew virtually nothing. This I find pathetic and somewhat horrifying. It means that the most important Event in human history is politely and quietly bypassed. For it is not as though the evidence had been examined and found unconvincing: it had simply never been examined.

But beyond the tendency to take the Gospels for granted, many Western people unknowingly reflect the unexamined assumptions of their generation. Unaware of their bias, their denial of the reliability of the gospel tradition is usually much stronger than the reasons they give for doing so. (See the ATQ article Recent Media Have Claimed Jesus Christ Is Legendary: Is It True?)

The emotional power of untested assumptions reflects some of the natural inclinations that the apostle Paul wrote about in his first New Testament letter to the Corinthians.

“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one”
(1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NKJV).

The inability of unbelievers to recognize their bias is a striking example of spiritual blindness. But along with a spiritual blindness that unconsciously distorts reality so that truth becomes invisible even when in plain view, there may be an element of intentional hostility (Matthew 13:11-17; Romans 1:18-22).

Yet Christians are in no position to “judge” modern unbelievers who seem to grasp at straws to avoid the truth. They are probably no worse people than we are. The New Testament makes it clear that apart from God’s grace, everyone—including Peter (Matthew 16:23), Paul (Acts 9:1-6), Jesus’ own family (Mark 3:21; John 7:5), Jesus’ townspeople (Mark 6:1-5), and others who should have known better (John 20:24-29) were inflicted with spiritual blindness and infected with doubt.

For many people in the West, Christianity has become a convenient scapegoat. This shouldn’t surprise us. Just as pagan intellectuals like Julian the Apostate once blamed the gospel for the deterioration of the Roman Empire, unbelieving Western intellectuals today blame Christian faith either directly or indirectly for the Western cultural failures and offenses of the past 2,000 years. The world’s hostility toward Christ isn’t incidental, and the same hatred that was directed toward Him and His message can be expected to be directed against the genuine story of His life, death, and resurrection.

See the ATQ article What Are Some Arguments Used to Downplay the Significance of the Gospels?

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Do Their Miracles Imply The Gospels Are Legendary?

When, as the story goes, Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree and saw an apple fall, he already believed that God was ultimately responsible both for the apple’s existence and its fall from the tree. Newton discovered the principles of classical physics because he wanted to know the means by which God made apples fall.

Science assumes that all natural phenomena have natural causes that can be discovered if we look for them. This assumption is called methodological naturalism. There is no inherent contradiction between the use of methodological naturalism and belief in miracles and the supernatural. Isaac Newton formulated the laws of classical physics while holding passionate faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Many scientists share Newton’s Christian worldview.

Unfortunately, some people have been so deeply impressed with the power of science that they make methodological naturalism the standard for judging all truth and value. This misapplication of methodological naturalism results in the dogmatic rejection of miracles. Most people today have a sense of the importance of methodological naturalism for science. But they also know that science has little bearing on their most important decisions. No one depends on science to choose a spouse or select a career. (See the ATQ articles, Why Believe in God’s Existence, When It Can’t Be Proven Scientifically? and How Can I Prove to Someone that God Exists?) Trying to do so would be like an orchestra replacing a concert pianist with a piano repairman.

Different subjects call for different evidence. If we want to examine historical events, we need more tools than the scientific method can provide. A murder trial, for example, attempts to reconstruct historical events. Every murder is unique, involving specific people and circumstances that can’t be reproduced. Science may be used in the process of clarifying and presenting evidence, but no murder can be repeated and scientifically tested so that guilt can be established with absolute certainty. A judgment of (legal) guilt or innocence is reached on the basis of cumulative evidence, including circumstantial evidence and subjective factors like motive.

Historical evidence, like the evidence in a trial, is not strictly “scientific.” Nevertheless it requires rational standards for analysis and verification. A juror who ignores a vast array of evidence for guilt, because he assumes from the start that the defendant is innocent, violates standards of truth just as much as a scientist who ignores evidence that doesn’t support his hypothesis.

The New Testament skeptic has to account for the sudden rise of a group of believers who centered their lives and hopes in a man they proclaimed was raised from the dead, the Son of God, worthy of worship.

What is the sufficient historical explanation for how a band of first-century Palestinian (predominantly Galilean) Jews came to abandon some of their most deeply held religious convictions—indeed, the central tenet of their traditional faith—and worshipped a Jewish contemporary of theirs as, in some sense, “Yahweh embodied”? Of course, one explanation—the traditional Christian explanation—begins by appreciating how extraordinary the Jesus event must have been to inspire such a radical shift in the faith in his followers. If Jesus made the claims, lived the life, and performed the miracles the Gospels attribute to him, and if Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead as the Gospels claim, and if his earliest Jewish followers personally experienced these momentous events—particularly the resurrected Jesusthen the radical worldview reorientation these followers experienced begins to make sense.” (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 99.)

Although skeptics have dedicated themselves to finding an explanation, they have failed. (See the ATQ article, What Are Some Arguments Used to Downplay the Significance of the Gospels?)

In fact, their attempts to account for the evidence have often deteriorated into self-deception and transparently weak arguments. (See the ATQ article, Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?)

The vast majority of Western people have never stopped believing in miracles.1 The paradigm of metaphysical naturalism is weakening, and there is growing pressure on scholars to look at the actual historical evidence rather than making metaphysical assumptions about what can or cannot happen. As decades pass and evidence accumulates, it becomes more and more clear that the most reasonable conclusion is that miracles actually occurred in connection with Jesus and His ministry, and that the historical tradition contained in the Gospels is reliable.

  1. For example, in 1989, George Gallup Jr. reported that 82 percent of the American populace affirmed that, “even today, miracles are performed by the power of God.” So too, a 1998 Southern Focus Poll found that 83.1 percent of its respondents believed that “God answers prayers,” with 33.6 percent reporting that they had personally experienced having “an illness cured by prayer.” Not only this, but it is undeniable that Western culture at the present time is experiencing a significant surge of people publicly reporting experiences of healings, angelic or demonic encounters, and so on. Whatever else one makes of this, at the very least it suggests that the “modern, Western worldview” is not nearly as committed to naturalism as scholars such as Bultmann, Harvey, Funk, and others have suggested.
    The stark clash between what naturalistic scholars say the Western worldview should entail, on the one hand, and what the majority of Western people in fact believe and experience, on the other, suggests that when scholars proclaim that the Western worldview is incurably naturalistic, their intent is not so much to describe what the Western worldview is as it is to prescribe what the Western worldview should be. (The Jesus Legend, p. 74)  Back To Article
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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
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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

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