History of Christianity: Lecture Four–The Earliest Traditions about Jesus (part 2)


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 second post contains the last half of this lecture.  

6.  Authorship of the Gospels

Why would the fact that stories normally got changed over time have any effect on the Gospels?  After all, they were not written by hypothetical businessmen but by disciples of Jesus and their close followers, in other words, by eyewitnesses and those who knew eyewitnesses.  In fact, the question of the authorship of the Gospels is not that simple.

All four of the Gospels that were later attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in fact written anonymously.  These books later came to be ascribed to people named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:  two of Jesus’ disciples and two friends of his apostles.  Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved disciple, were two of Jesus’ disciples.  Mark, who was thought to be the secretary of the apostle Peter, and Luke, who was thought to be the traveling companion to the apostle Paul, were two friends of Jesus’ apostles.  These attributions of the Gospels to these four men were not originally in the Gospels themselves, but rather arose in the 2nd century AD some decades after the Gospels themselves were written.  There are good reasons for doubting that these ascriptions are accurate.  Even though Jesus and his followers originally spoke Aramaic, a language that is closely related to Hebrew, the Gospels were written in Greek.

Moreover, Jesus’ own disciples, at least according to New Testament accounts, were by and large lower-class uneducated peasants.  According to the Book of Acts, Chapter 4, both Peter and John, two of Jesus’ principal disciples, were known to be illiterate.  The Gospel authors, on the other hand, are highly educated and literate.  In addition, all of these Gospels are written in the 3rd person.  Never does a Gospel author says, “and then Jesus and I went up to Jerusalem.”  These books do not appear to have written by Jesus’ own disciples.  They were later ascribed to apostles by later Christians, Christians who were interested in securing their authority as canonical scripture.  These traditional ascriptions, however, are late and questionable.

Who then were the authors of these books?  We can’t really say, other than that they were relatively highly-educated literate Greek-speaking Christians living several decades after Jesus who had heard numerous reports about his life from the various stories that had been passed down by Jesus’ followers and had written some of these reports down.

7.  Evidence for the Contention:  The Death of Jesus according to Mark

Is there any evidence for this view that the stories in the Gospels were changed over time?  Prof. Ehrman illustrates the kind of evidence that is widely available to scholars by looking at just two brief accounts.  The first account has to do with a relatively simple and minor question:  when did Jesus die?

Before going into this example, Prof. Ehrman has to stress the point that historians have to look at what seems to be minutiae in order to make a big point.  It is like the investigation of a murder case.  There may be a highly significant murder case but the inspector who comes into the room, instead of being aghast at the immensity of the crime, starts looking for fingerprints or strands of hair, which would seem small and insignificant in comparison with the crime that has been committed.  Historians are like that:  they have to look for little things in order to explain something big that has happened, because a little thing may have big implications.

When did Jesus die?  Each of the Gospels narrates the events.  Two of the Gospels, the earliest one, Mark, and the latest one, John, provide the dates for Jesus’ death.  All of the Gospels agree that Jesus died at some time during the feast of the Passover, the annual festival that was celebrated in Jerusalem by Jews to commemorate the events of the Exodus from Egypt.  The festival had as its background the story of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt under Moses as recorded in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus.  In the 1st Century, Jews would come from all over the world to celebrate this feast.  When they came to Jerusalem, they would purchase a lamb that would be eaten at the celebration in the evening.  The lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in the afternoon before the Passover where the lambs were actually eaten.  The day when the lambs were sacrificed was therefore called the Day of Preparation for the Passover.  It is important to recall that in Jewish reckoning, a new day does not begin at midnight as it does for us, but whenever it gets dark.  That’s why the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening when it gets dark and continues until Saturday evening until it gets dark.  The lambs during the Passover feast then were sacrificed on the Day of Preparation for thee Passover; they were taken home and cooked for the evening meal, and when it got dark it would then be the next day and the lambs were would be eaten for the Passover meal on the Day of Passover.

Let us return now to the Gospel accounts.  In the earliest account of Jesus’ last days, the account found in Mark, the sequence of events leading up to Jesus’ death are clearly laid out.  The day before Jesus was arrested, Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wants to prepare to eat the Passover meal (Mark 14:12).  He gives them their instructions.  That night, in other words, on the Day of the Passover, they have the meal in which Jesus takes the symbolic food of the Passover Feast and instills new significance in them.  He takes the unleavened bread and says “this is my body which is given for you.”  He takes the cup of wine and says “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  Afterwards, Jesus goes out to pray.  He is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and handed over to the Jewish authorities for trial.  He spends the night in jail.  The next morning, that is, the morning after the Passover lambs have been eaten, Jesus appears before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who finds him guilty of criminal charges and orders him executed.  Jesus is taken immediately off and crucified and we’re told when this was:  at 9:00 in the morning (Mark 15:25).  This is a very clear dating of when Jesus died.

8.  Evidence for the Contention:  The Death of Jesus according to John

Our last Gospel, the Gospel of John, also provides a precise dating for the events.  The sequence of events in John is in many ways similar to that found in the Gospel of Mark, but there are striking differences as well.  Here, too, Jesus has a last meal with his disciples, but there is no word of it being the Passover meal.  The disciples in this Gospel never ask where they are to prepare the Passover and Jesus does not speak about the symbolic foods, giving them new significance.  After the supper, Jesus again goes out to pray.  He is betrayed by Judas, is arrested, spends the rest of the night in jail.  The next day he appears before Pontius Pilate and is ordered to be executed.  We are then told precisely when it happens in John 19:14:  on the Day of Preparation for the Passover at 12:00 noon.  How could it be the Day of Preparation for the Passover, when according to Mark’s account, Jesus lived through that day, he had the Passover meal with his disciples that night, and was put on the cross the next morning on the day of Passover itself.  In John’s Gospel, though, Jesus was executed before the Passover meal even began.  How does one reconcile this discrepancy?  Well, it probably can’t be reconciled literally, although people try all the time.  It is worth noting, though, that the Gospel of John, which has Jesus did on the afternoon before the Passover, has him dying precisely when the Passover lambs, the lambs of God, were being slaughtered in the Temple.  Moreover, this Gospel is the only Gospel that refers to Jesus himself as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29 and 1:36).  In other words, in John’s Gospel Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God and he died precisely when on the day and at the time when the lambs are being killed in the Temple.  It appears highly probable that John changed the day and the hour historical time of Jesus’ death in order to emphasize a theological point, to show that Jesus really was the Passover Lamb.

This shows that in John’s Gospel we have accounts that have been changed in order to make theological points.  We could show example after example of similar things happening throughout the Gospels, where it appears that you have a story told in two different accounts with differences between them, and the differences make sense in light of the theological views of the authors.  A natural assumption is that this kind of changing of the accounts, which you can show without much doubt in the written texts, was also going on at the oral stages, as people were telling stories about Jesus and modifying them in order to make their points.  Sometimes the Gospels tell different accounts of the same stories precisely because they derive from different oral versions of the same story.

9.  Further Evidence for the Contention:  The Birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke

You can see this for yourself by comparing almost any two accounts of the same story in the Gospels.  The birth stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are a good example.  If you make a list of everything that happened to Jesus at his birth in each of the stories and compare the two lists, you find that the Christmas story that Christians celebrate every year on December 25th is a conflation of these two accounts.  You can see the similarities and the differences between these two accounts.  For example, what was Joseph and Mary’s home town?  If you read Luke, it was Nazareth.  If you read Matthew, it was Bethlehem.

10.  Conclusion

It’s undoubtedly true that the Gospels of the New Testament contain stories about Jesus that are historically accurate, but they also contain stories that appear to have been modified as Christians told and retold the stories over the decades between Jesus’ death and these first accounts of his life.  One of the tasks will be to decide which of the stories in the Gospel represent historically accurate materials, and which ones represent stories that have been modified in the process of retelling them.  Our first task will be to look at the Gospels themselves to see what they have to say about Jesus, to see what their perspectives were.

The next lecture in the series will discuss the first Gospel to have been written, the Gospel according to Mark.

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