Mind the Gap: The Gospels and Oral Transmission

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In recent posts (e.g., here and here), I’ve been writing about the authorship of the Gospels, and the degree to which Gospel content may be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus.

The point of the work has been to counter Bart Ehrman’s view (in How Jesus Became God, pp. 90-91) that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or close disciples of eyewitnesses (as traditionally claimed) but rather were Christians of a later generation, whose writings are thereby less historically reliable. I have resisted Ehrman’s view and claimed that, in fact, there is decent (though perhaps not conclusive) evidence for the traditional view.

Mind the Gap

However, even if I’m right, there is still a problem for the historicity of the Gospels, namely the gap between the time of Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels.

For example, if we assume that Jesus died around 30 CE, then the time between his ministry (late 20s CE) and the composition of Mark (late 60s or early 70s CE), is at least 40 years. Given the apparent reliance of Matthew and Luke upon Mark (discussed in this post), those two Gospels would entail an even longer gap—maybe 50 years. The Gospel according to John is thought to have been written in the 90s CE, suggesting a still longer gap for that Gospel.

Scholars generally agree that during this in-between period the stories and teachings in the Gospels would have been passed on orally. Ehrman claims that such oral transmission would be unreliable, leading to distortions that further call into question the historicity of the Gospels. Continue reading

The Historicity of the Gospels: Bart Ehrman’s Skeptical View

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaen

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens (Louvre Museum)

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman begins with a story from his days as a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s. He tells how, as part of the practical Christian ministry component of his education, he served as a youth pastor at a church in a suburb of Chicago and developed a close mentoring relationship with the senior pastor there.

At that time, Moody was a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism—a late-19th- and 20th-century reaction to liberal currents in Protestant theology. Protestant liberals sought to adapt their theology to developments in the sciences and social sciences, including critical historical analysis of the Bible and evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists rejected this adaptation in favor of biblical literalism and an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible.

After his Fundamentalist beginnings, Ehrman pursued advanced degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary. He recounts how, during those studies, he came to doubt some of the central tenets of orthodox Christian theology, including the divinity of Jesus. He was impressed by the fact that Jesus is only rarely referred to as divine in the New Testament, and that Jesus only ever refers to himself as divine in the Gospel of John—the historicity of which is often viewed as dubious.

While wrestling with these doubts, he returned to Chicago to visit his former pastor, in the hope of receiving some guidance. The pastor responded by encouraging him to “hold on to the basics,” and by quoting Jesus’s claim in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Ehrman responded, “But what if Jesus never said that?” Continue reading