Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 3
Evaluating the primary sources: who wrote the Gospels, and when did they write them?
Authorship: Who Wrote the Gospels?
-The Gospels we have in their current form say that they were written by two of Jesus’ original disciples (Matthew the tax collector, and John, the “beloved disciple”), and by two friends of the apostles (Peter’s secretary, Mark, and Paul’s traveling companion, Luke).
-The problem is that we have strong reasons to doubt these claims.
- The Gospels were originally published anonymously: they didn’t originally have the titles of “The Gospel According to Matthew”, “The Gospel According to Mark”, etc.
- None of the Gospels claim they were written by an eyewitness.
- They all describe the events they discuss in the third person (perhaps John is an exception. We’ll discuss this later.).
- The Gospels were all written in Greek, but the original disciples were Jews who spoke Aramaic or Hebrew.
- About 90% of the population was completely illiterate, including those in the socioeconomic classes to which the disciples belonged. In fact, the Book of Acts (4:13) states that Peter and John were illiterate. Only the rich elite could afford the leisure and training to learn Greek.
-The earliest reports we have that discuss the authorship of the Gospels are from a Christian named Papius from 120-130 CE. This is late testimony as it stands, but there are further reasons to doubt that it supports traditional authorship. He makes two main claims about their authorship:
- Claim 1: During his missionary journeys, Peter would talk about the sayings and deeds of Jesus, and Mark would write them down, although not in order. Some take this to be a reference to the Gospel of Mark. However, note that Papius thinks Mark was not written by an eyewitness but that it is a second-hand account, and that Mark modified what he received to order to the material.
- Claim 2: Matthew wrote down the sayings (but not the deeds) of Jesus in Hebrew, and “everyone interpreted them as they could”. Some take him to be referring to the Gospel of Matthew. However, the earliest copies we have of Matthew are all in Greek, not Hebrew. Furthermore, Matthew contains much more than just the words of Jesus.It thus seems that he’s not referring to Matthew.
-The next earliest report we have that discuss the authorship of the Gospels is from the Christian bishop Irenaeus near the end of the 2nd century CE. He claims that only four gospels are accurate and divinely inspired (Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John). This testimony is late as it stands CE (about 150 years or so after the events), but there are further reasons to be suspicious:
- Irenaeus was involved in intense debates about orthodoxy, during a time when very many Christian sects, with very different views of who Jesus was.
- All these other competing Christian sects appealed to their written gospels and other texts as proof of their sect as “orthodox”.
- Irenaeus wanted to unify the church by ruling out all other versions of Christianity as heretical.
- It would greatly help his cause if he could make it the official church position that just the traditional four gospels were authoritative.
-Luke (1:1-4) reveals that many attempted to write down an account of the life and deeds of Jesus, and that he was doing the same, from a third-person, non- eyewitness standpoint. He also implies that the other accounts are inaccurate. Since we know he relies on Mark’s gospel as a source, this seems to imply that he thinks Mark’s gospel wasn’t completely accurate.
-For these reasons and others, most scholars think the gospels were written anonymously, and not by eyewitnesses, in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine.
Dates: When Were the Gospels Written?
-Most historians date the Gospels as follows:
- Mark: mid-60s to mid-70s CE
- Matthew and Luke:80-85 CE
-Historians agree that Jesus died around 30CE
-So, there is a 35-65 year gap between the historical events of Jesus’ ministry and their being written down in the Gospels
-This gives scholars pause about taking the gospels at face value as 100% reliable testimony.
- Imagine trying to write the first written account of the life of JFK today, without the aid of photographs, videos, newspapers, the Internet, or any other media sources, but only reports from second- or third- or fourth or fifth-hand accounts of his life and career.
-A final consideration in evaluating the Gospels as sources of material about Jesus:
- The original material behind the Gospels was based on oral traditions about Jesus, which were primarily developed and dispersed by evangelists and ordinary Christians, as the Christian message spread from Palestine to the outer Roman Empire
- The game “telephone” illustrates how orally transmitted material can quickly and unintentionally change by transmission from one person to another.o The material was told with the aim of converting non-Christians, and to develop their understanding of the faith.o The Roman Empire was immense, and so there was no reliable way for the apostles to prevent alteration of the material.
-For these reasons and others, most scholars think we can’t take the gospels at face value as 100% reliable historical sources about Jesus