“How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”

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by Neil Godfrey

How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?

That is the opening question of Richard Bauckham’s chapter, “Gospel Traditions: Anonymous Community Traditions or Eyewitness Testimony?”, in Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions — The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Princeton 2007. His is the opening chapter in the section on Sources.

Our questions determine the answers we find and here we see questions arising from several layers of unquestioned assumptions.

Firstly, the section on Sources contains twelve chapters all of which embed the presumption of the gospel narratives having derived from historical events. Not one considers the possibility of the story having been crafted from “midrahic”-type retellings of “Old Testament” characters, stories and sayings despite our awareness of the many works linking almost every section of the various gospels to some “Old Testament” text.

The title of Bauckham’s chapter assumes that the gospel narratives were developed from sources for which we have no evidence — unless we take the conclusions of form criticism as evidence for earlier community traditions. Of course absence of evidence for pre-gospel eyewitness testimony is not proof that it did not exist, but in the absence of that evidence we surely need to have a very strong explanatory argument for the various sections of the gospel narratives to support the hypothesis. Is the “criterion of embarrassment” really a strong explanation for the particular details narrated about the baptism of Jesus?

Then we come down to the opening sentence itself. The question assumes that the gospel narratives were based on “the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history”.

The Kind of Question a Biblical Critic and Historian Asks

But contrast the question the historian Aviezer Tucker says is the one the historian should ask of his/her sources:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past, p. 99

Fair enough. Tucker is addressing miracles here. But Bauckham does believe that miracles were indeed believed by eyewitnesses to have been performed by Jesus although he may have a more sophisticated modern understanding of what Jesus actually did. But I think we can take Tucker’s statement as a more professional guide to how historical inquiry ought to proceed.

How a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament

If we do so, I believe we will be moving more in the direction that the sadly recently departed Philip R. Davies suggested biblical scholars should move on the question of Christian origins:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus . . . .

Davies: Did Jesus Exist?

Below is a summary of Philip Davies’ “minimalist approach” copied from my 2010 post. It follows the principle set out by Aviezer Tucker above.

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3 Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on ““How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?””

  1. Pfoh, Emanuel (2012). “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem”. In Thompson, Thomas L.; Verenna, Thomas S. ″Is this Not the Carpenter?″: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. Copenhagen International Seminar series. pp. 80–81:

    The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus, as his activities are narrated in the Gospels, resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.
    Yet, theological need hardly counts as either sound historical method or evidence. In order to draw critical conclusions and historical rather than religious answers to our questions, a secular perspective on the subject must prevail—which does not prevent, of course, an engagement with more theologically or religiously-driven perspectives (Cf. J. G. Crossley, Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), esp. 1–34.).

    1. Per “Historicity of Jesus”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 16 July 2018:

      Virtually all New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is effectively certain…

      As I understand, apart from evangelical/fundamentalist works and other than Case (1928) [first pub. 1912], Carrier (2014) —there are no peer-reviewed works specifically on “the question of the historicity of Jesus”. And that Ehrman (2012), Casey (2014) are popular works on “the question of the historicity of Jesus”.

      1. Ehrman (5 May 2012). “Did Jesus Exist as Part One”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

        Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise.

        Lataster, Raphael (18 December 2014). “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up”. The Washington Post.

        Only Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey have thoroughly attempted to prove Jesus’ historical existence in recent times. Their most decisive point? The Gospels can generally be trusted – after we ignore the many, many bits that are untrustworthy – because of the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them. […] Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved.

  2. I would use an analogy of Richard Elliott Friedman in “The Exodus”.

    “If there was an exodus, it was necessarily small in numbers”.

    “There was an introduction and merger of Yahweh, the God of the Exodus experience, with El, the God of the Israelite experience. The merger was — it had to have been — a crucial step in the formation of monotheism.”

    “You do not mess with the Levites. If you do, you find a horse head in your bed. So they reached an accord: the resident tribes keep their legacies, their territorial portions of the land. But the Levites have no tribal territory; so they get a few cities and 10 percent (a tithe) of the Israelite tribes’ produce. And then this is set in a context of religion.”

    So…a grain of truth in history, oral stories. Much later weaved together in text to have a united country and theology – united in monotheistic theology.

    Maybe same for Jesus oral stories. Probably crucified, oral stories of resurrection and miracles after the crucifixion. List of oral sayings similar to The Gospel of Thomas. Much later, texts weaved together to reflect monotheism (Jesus, Father merged together like Yahweh and El, to maintain monotheism).

    This conference was done way before Friedman’s book, but it covers the Exodus pretty well.


  3. The Greek New Testament was probably a combination of translated literary sources, with unintentional or deliberate mis-translations of Semitic metaphors and idioms, with a lot of creative disinformation tossed in to fool the Greek speaking Diaspora Judeans and their Pagan running-dogs into believing that Jesus , what ever he really was, was a harmless apolitical non violent looser.

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