History of Christianity: Lecture Four–The Earliest Traditions about Jesus (part 1)


This is a summary of the fourth part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company.  The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament.  For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

This post contains the first half of the lecture.  

1.  Introduction

The previous lectures have focused on the cultural background of Jesus’ life, starting with the Greco-Roman world and early Judaism.  This lecture starts looking at the New Testament itself, beginning with the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

What kind of books are the Gospels?  Are they historically accurate biographies of Jesus, written by people who actually saw him do the things that he did?  Or are they filled with legends and myths?  Or are they fictions created by his well-intentioned followers?  In short, are they facts or fictions, or a combination of both?

2.  Dates of the Gospels

One way to begin to answer the questions in the last paragraph is to look at some historical data:  the dates that the Gospels were written as compared to the dates of the events that they narrate.  Virtually all scholars agree that Jesus died some time around the year 30 AD.  The Gospels were probably written about 30-65 years after Jesus’ death.  Most scholars are reasonably sure that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, around 65-70 AD.  Matthew and Luke were probably the next Gospels to be written, around 80-85 AD.  The Gospel of John was probably the last Gospel to be written, some time around 90-95 AD.

Most scholars agree on these dates.  What scholars do not agree on is the significance of these dates.  Prof. Ehrman wants to discuss the time gap between the death of Jesus and the first accounts of his life.  This gap of between 30-65 years is significant for our understanding of these earliest accounts of Jesus.  In modern terms, it would be as if the earliest accounts of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson were written in this year.  Some of you may be thinking, that’s not a big time gap because many people remember his presidency quite well, but what if there no written sources between the time of his presidency and the present day?

That would only be comparable to the gap between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospel of Mark, some 30-35 years.  What if the gap were as long as that between the death of Jesus and the Gospel of John, some 60-65 years?  That would be the equivalent of someone writing about the Great Depression of the 1930s with no earlier written resources.  This demonstrates that the 30-65 year time gap between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is significant.

3.  The Significance of the Time Gap

The significance of the time gap comes from figuring out what was happening in the intervening years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospels.  Of course, there were a lot of events happening in the Roman Empire during those decades.  The most important thing that was happening, for the purpose of our analysis, is that Christianity was spreading throughout the Empire.  Christianity started immediately after Jesus’ death with a handful of his followers.  According to the Book of Acts, Jesus had 11 remaining followers amongst his disciples (the 12th follower Judas had killed himself), and a handful of women, so let’s say around 20 followers altogether, all located in Jerusalem, who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.  Between that time and the end of the 1st century AD, Christianity had spread to the major urban areas of the Mediterranean as Christians propagated their belief in Jesus as the son of God who had died for the sins of the world.  So within 40-50 years, this tiny band of 20 or so disciples had multiplied themselves many times over.  In these days before mass media, the religion of Christianity was propagated by word of mouth, that is, by telling stories about Jesus from one person to the next:  stories about what he taught, what he did, and how he died.  People were trying to convert others to Christianity and the only way to do it effectively was to tell people the stories of Jesus.  We don’t have evidence of people doing massive revivals, tent meetings, campaign rallies in the Coliseum or anything of that sort.  It appears to have been propagated by having people hear the stories of Jesus, form church communities, and then tell the stories of Jesus within the churches.  This process occurred not just in Jerusalem, but in the cities of Judea, Samaria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Akkea (modern-day Greece), Italy, North Africa and in Egypt.  Throughout the Mediterranean, people are converting to Christianity by listening to the stories about Jesus.

Who is telling the stories about Jesus?  Given that stories are being told throughout this entire region, they are obviously being told in different languages and in different areas.  The people who are telling the stories about Jesus are by and large not Jesus’ own followers.  They must have been by and large those people who had been converted to Christianity.  Imagine that you are a businessman who lived in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor.  Someone has come through town on business or for some other reason and has met you and told you stories about Jesus, the son of God in Judea who did miracles and delivered great teachings, but who was then crucified by the Roman governor of Judea.  The more you hear, the more you believe in this story and you are converted to Christianity.  You go home and tell your family.  Based on some of the stories you have told, let us say your husband or your wife converts.  Your spouse goes next door and tells the neighbors, and they convert.  One of these neighbors is a businessman who goes to Smyrna and tells the stories there.  The people he tells in Smyrna convert and then tell the stories to their family members.  From whom did these family members tell the stories?  They heard it from the businessman who came to town.

So you can see how the stories propagate from town to town.  But the people who are converting are doing it based on the stories they have heard from people in their own town.  However, these stories cannot have been told by the eyewitnesses themselves, because the religion is increasing geometrically and therefore propagating too quickly to be simply based on eyewitness testimony.  The people who are telling the stories were not there to see these events happen, and they didn’t know anybody who had seen these things happen.  Prof. Ehrman stresses that the Empire itself did not convert to Christianity until much, much later.  But there were pockets of Christians who were starting to emerge in this period in various locales throughout the Mediterranean.

4.  Contention:  stories about Jesus were changed

What happened to the stories as they were being narrated by these people at this time?  Prof. Ehrman’s contention is that the stories got changed as they got told time and time again.  The stories of Jesus were modified as people told them year after year.  Sometimes the changes to the stories would have been purely accidental, just as every story gets changed as it gets told from one person to another.  He relates the children’s game “Telephone” where a group of children sit in a circle and one child tells a story to the next child and so on around the circle.  By the time it gets back to the child who told the original story, it has become a different story.  Imagine playing the game of “Telephone” for 50 years involving thousands of people in different countries using different languages.  Prof. Ehrman says it is reasonable to assume that the story told would get changed.

Sometimes the stories get changed because people wanted to change the story.  After all people are telling stories about Jesus expressly because they want to convert others to believe in certain things and to act in certain ways.  The stories were told to promote faith in Jesus and to promote the right kind of faith in Jesus.  Was it possible that sometimes the stories were changed precisely in order to make Jesus look even better than he did before, or to stress a particular theological point about the importance of Jesus.  There is historical evidence that stories were changed in these ways.

5.  Objections to this Contention

There are objections to this idea that the stories about Jesus were changed as they came to be circulated by word of mouth.  Some people state that the stories could not have been changed in such a short amount of time, especially when there were eyewitnesses around who could verify the account.  The logic behind this objection is that there were eyewitnesses around who would have been able to check to make sure that the stories being about Jesus were correct.  Prof. Ehrman does not put much stock in this objection, however, because it does not take much time to change a story; moreover, the presence of eyewitnesses does not usually have a lot to do with the accuracy of an account.  Stories can change overnight.  Even today, we can occasionally read a newspaper article or hear an account on the radio or television which turns out later to be wrong.  Some of Prof. Ehrman’s colleagues refuse to give interviews on the radio or television because they do not trust that their views will be accurately presented.

As to the other point of the objection, the mere presence of eyewitnesses cannot guarantee the accuracy of an account, especially in a world before mass communications existed.  There’s no way to guarantee that eyewitnesses will be around to guarantee that the telling of a certain story is accurate.

The second objection that people raise to the idea that the stories of Jesus got changed is that in ancient societies which were oral cultures, people had better memories than people do today who live in modern societies which are written cultures.  In other words, people in oral cultures had an ability to tell and recall stories accurately.  Since they had better memories, they had better accuracy when they told stories.

Unfortunately for this view, anthropological studies done in the past 20 years have shown convincingly that this is not the case at all.  In fact, the very concern for verbal accuracy that lies behind this theory is a concern that exists exclusively in written cultures like our own.  It is only in written cultures where one can actually check the accuracy of something that is said.  Since you can check in written cultures the accuracy of something that is said, we believe that statements ought to be accurate.

In oral societies it turns out there is no natural assumption that stories should remain unchanged.  In fact, anthropological studies have shown that the assumption in oral societies is that stories should be changed depending on the audience to whom a story is told.  So it appears that stories were changed as they were told by word of mouth from one person to another.

The next post will contain the second half of the lecture.  

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