Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 5
Other Christian Sources Besides the Gospels?
Key Ehrman quote: “Despite a good deal of media hype in recent years, a lot of people still don’t realize that we have other Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament. Lots of other Gospels, in fact – over couple of dozen of them. Many of these Gospels make for fascinating reading and can be of real significance for a scholar interested in knowing about how Jesus came to be understood in later times. But most of them are latecomers – the bulk of them date from the third to the eighth centuries, hundreds of years after Jesus himself. And nearly all of them are based on the New Testament Gospels themselves. For these reasons, they are not, as a rule, useful for the historian seeking independent verification of the things Jesus said and did.” (p. 65)
Christian Sources Outside the New Testament:
- The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: largely historically worthless.
- The Gospel of Peter: contains perhaps a few scraps of reliable information about Jesus trial and death, but largely legendary in character (On this latter point, see, especially its account of Jesus’ resurrection).
- The Coptic Gospel of Thomas: contains some independent sayings of Jesus not found in the synoptic gospels (Matt., Mk. And Lk.) or John, but was probably written in the second century, and is pervaded with later, gnostic theology.
Sub-conclusion: “In sum, there does not appear to be much information about the historical Jesus outside the canon of the New Testament. . .Even though there are lots of other Gospels out there, they are almost certainly entirely late and legendary. To be sure, the Gospel of Peter may theoretically provide some corroborating information about Jesus’ last hours, and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas may preserve some independently attested sayings of Jesus. But even on a generous estimate, these books will not provide any significant help in our quest. No matter how you slice it, you have to rely on the New Testament if you want to know about the life of the historical Jesus.” (p. 78)
Christian Sources Within the New Testament:
Paul’s letters (circa 51-58 CE):
-These are the earliest written Christian sources we have – earlier even than the four Gospels, and perhaps even Q -- and they do contain information about Jesus.
-Unfortunately (a) they do not contain much – the information could fit on a 3” x 5” notecard – and (b) the little they say only corroborates what the four Gospels already say:
- Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Shocker!
- He was born a Jew (Gal. 4:4).
- He was reputedly from the lineage of King David (Rom. 1:3).
- He had brothers (1 Cor. 9:5).
- One of his brothers was named ‘James’ (Gal. 1:19).
- He had twelve disciples (1 Cor. 15:5).
- He conducted ministry among the Jews (Rom. 15:8).
- He had a last meal with his disciples on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23).
- Paul knows what Jesus said at his last meal (1 Cor. 11:23-25).
- Jesus died by crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2).
- Jesus said Christians shouldn’t divorce (1 Cor. 7:11; cf. Mk. 10:11-12).
- Jesus said Christians should pay their preacher (1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Lk. 10:7).
- Christians should pay their taxes (Rom. 13:7; cf. Mk. 12:17).
- Christians should fulfill the Law of Moses by loving their neighbors as themselves (Gal. 5:14; cf. Matt. 22:39-40).
Key Ehrman quote: “Paul does say a lot about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death, resurrection, and imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve just listed is about all there is. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness; nothing of his teaching about the coming kingdom of God. We have no indication that he ever told parables, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead. We learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, and so on. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus – or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself – will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul. Or indeed, by the other authors of the New Testament.” (p. 79)
The Sources used by the Authors of the Canonical Gospels:
Mark’s gospel: This is the first gospel written (60s CE). Matthew and Luke use it as a major primary source for their gospels (Matthew has over 500 verses parallel to Mark’s 661 verses; Luke has about 330 verses of Mark).
The Q Source: This is the large body of material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. Here we have lots of information about Jesus’, especially what he said. It’s also very early (50s- 60s CE).
The M Source: This is the material unique to Matthew. It’s also early – earlier than Matthew, at least.
The L Source: This is the material unique to Luke. It, too, is early – earlier than Luke, at least.