But Do We Know that the Right Words Were Written? – Objection #3

Posted: June 21, 2015 in Biblical Interpretation, Historical apologetics, Positive Apologetics
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Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #1

Objection #2

Objection #3: The Gospel Writers Invented Stories of Jesus according to their Own Biases

Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann

The collection of the material of the tradition began in the primitive Palestinian Church. Apologetic and polemic led to the collection and production of apophthegmatic [short and witty] sections. The demands of edification and the vitality of the prophetic spirit in the Church resulted in the handing on, the production and the collection of prophetic and apocalyptic sayings of the Lord. Further collections of dominical sayings grew out of the need for parenesis [advice, exhortation] and Church discipline. It is only natural that stories of Jesus should be told and handed down in the Church—biographical apophthegms, miracles [sic] stories and others.” (Cited by William Baird, History of New Testament Research: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann, p.285) RightObj43a

Bultmann is essentially claiming that in order to meet the needs of the early church, sayings of Jesus were fabricated. Different circumstances gave rise to different types of sayings, with the purposes ranging from defending the faith among unbelievers to encouraging and challenging those who were already believers. He did not mean that none of what found its way into the Gospels was originally from Jesus, but it becomes clear that he considered very little to truly be from Jesus when we consider his criteria for genuine sayings of Jesus.

“We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features.” (History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.205)

Bultmann only considered a supposed saying of Jesus to be from Jesus Himself if it was unlike Judaism before Him and Christianity after Him. He especially notes that the genuine preaching of Jesus focused on the time to come. For those passages he deems genuine, this is a very strong historical argument. After all, if you find a saying of Jesus that does not come from His Jewish roots, and it also has nothing to do with later Christian belief and practice, it would seem to be a very unlikely fabrication. However, I submit that if you read through the Gospels in this way, you will not find many sayings that are totally unlike both Judaism and Christianity.

Alleged Gospel Invention RightObj44

To ask whether Jesus’ followers put words in His mouth for the sake of their audience is a fair question. After all, I do not deny that the authors of the Gospels had a distinct purpose in writing to their audiences and this even helps us interpret why they have included some sayings and stories, while omitting others. It is also interesting to consider how these men, who were clearly trying to convince others of the truth of their religion, could be judged to have presented the facts fairly and accurately. They were not third-party observers. They were biased toward their own religion, so perhaps this would lead them to embellish or even change the way things really went for their own purposes. As interesting as this may be, though, I believe there are good reasons to trust that the Gospels present the genuine teaching of Jesus, even if that comes through biased lenses.

Bias RightObj45

A couple of years ago, I was in Ukraine at the time when there were protests in the capital city of Kiev. This was a few months before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, but even at this time, there was a distinct difference between the Ukrainian news and the Russian news in regard to the situation in Kiev. After the annexation, there was quite a different story on the Russian news compared with the Ukrainian report of what had happened. Examples like this in the media today make us question the validity of biased testimony. We see how facts can be twisted or even how outright lies can be told, and we long for an unbiased third party to tell us what is really happening. Turning our attention to the ancient world, skeptics would be inclined to trust something in the Gospels, as long as it is corroborated by some supposedly neutral source. That is fair enough, but it is worth learning a little more about those neutral sources from New Testament scholars and historians.

“Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White remarks that in classical historiography the sources are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they narrate, but historians still reconstruct with confidence what happened.” (William Lane Craig, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.154)

“…scholars can make allowance not only for the subjective factors involved in the recording and interpretation of events, but even for incorrect data. The reconstructing of ancient history relies on the ability of the scholar to determine the facts of the past in spite of these deterrents.” (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p.261-262)

if the Gospels were not ideological, they would have been unparalleled among ancient historical and biographical writing!” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.37) RightObj46

To assume that historical accounts outside the Bible are unbiased is not in line with the evidence. The great Jewish historian Josephus, often used as a major source for events concerning the Jewish people, had the dual bias of being Jewish himself and of attempting to defend the Jewish people to his Roman benefactors. Ironically, skeptics sometimes try to use Josephus to cast doubt on the Gospels, but they do so by exaggerating what he says and neglecting Josephus’ own bias (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p.158-159). Sure, there were those who distorted the facts to support their own ideologies, but there were also those who reported accurate history because of their biases. The historian is not condemned to ignorance due to biases, but can reconstruct history by determining the facts through the biased reports. Furthermore, Swedish scholar Samuel Byrskog provides an important insight in regard to the role of bias in reporting history.

“Involvement was not an obstacle to a correct understanding of what they perceived as historical truth. It was rather the essential means to a correct understanding of what really happened.” (Story as History-History as Story, p.154) RightObj47

A biased observer would be able to portray the context in which a particular event occurs and would also be more interested in reporting all the relevant details. Conversely, an unbiased observer would in some cases miss the significance of the events they are supposed to be reporting. It is also worth saying that even if an observer might be considered unbiased toward that particular subject matter, no one is without some bias.

The reporting of events would then still be affected by bias, at least to some degree. So, the answer is not getting rid of bias, but reading the Gospels together with other ancient documents and determining what happened historically. Simply being biased did not condemn the Gospel writers to putting words in Jesus’ mouth, but it remains to be seen what the evidence indicates. RightObj-figure 3-2 Putting Words in Jesus’ Mouth?

“Sometimes you’ll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the Gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus’ mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it did not happen.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.77)

RightObj48aSome of this little evidence would be that many sayings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels do in fact correspond to needs of the early church. Wait a minute, though. Why would it be any other way? I find it unlikely that an author would seek to bring a message to his audience that was largely irrelevant to their lives. Some might counter that just having Jesus’ teaching was of value, regardless of its relevance, because of what Jesus meant to the people. It could be asked why Jesus meant so much if He said so little, but that can wait. At this point, I would like to point out the significance of there being four Gospels. We can see some similarities between them, but we must notice that the authors are being very selective as we compare the different accounts. As John explicitly tells us, Jesus said and did a lot more than what he records (John 20:30-31, 21:25), but he records what is relevant to his purpose in writing the Gospel. This would be true of any biography, for most people say and do a lot over the course of their lifetime. So, the fact that the Gospels present the life of Jesus in such a way as to relate to their audience should not be shocking.

That is all I wanted to say about the “little evidence”, but what further evidence is there that it did not happen? For one thing, if it were the case that Christians were free to make up their own “sayings of Jesus”, we would also expect there to be many more sayings of Jesus outside the Gospels. After all, why should sayings of Jesus be confined to the pages of a Gospel if Christians could just quote Him in their own writing to satisfy their specific need? Well, when we look at the early Christian writings outside the Gospels, what we see is a general hesitancy to quote Jesus. RightObj50

“Moreover, even more significantly, early Christian instruction (as we have it in various New Testament letters and in the Apostolic Fathers) rarely cites the sayings or deeds of Jesus as such. Allusions are made, more or less frequently; instruction is given that is clearly indebted in its spirit and thrust to the sayings of Jesus; but actual citations are very rare.” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.279)

I have conducted a study of allusions to the teaching of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament. Throughout these New Testament writings, I made note of hundreds of allusions being made, but in terms of quoting sayings of Jesus, there are only a couple. There are even examples where the wording is similar to a point where it would almost be considered a citation, but it is not attributed directly to Jesus. 1 Timothy 5:18 says “The laborer deserves his wages”, which is almost certainly referring to what Jesus says in Luke 10:7, and yet, the description says this belongs to Scripture. James 5:12 echoes the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37), as he says to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no”, but does not feel the need to justify his words by naming Jesus directly. Paul gives us perhaps the most explicit demonstration in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12. I have explained this in answering the objections to the first article in this series, so I will focus on what is relevant to the current discussion here. As I showed before, Paul is referring to the teaching of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 7:10, which reflects Mark 10:2-9 where Jesus teaches in favour of married couples not divorcing. Again, this would count as an allusion and not a direct citation, but what is most significant here is not what Paul is doing. It is what he is not doing. Jumping down to 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul could have pulled out another reference to Jesus, if indeed he was free to do so as he wished. However, he does no such thing. Why? Well, his subject is a believer being married with an unbeliever, and in Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish context, it is very unlikely that this would have come up for Him to comment on. So, having no authentic saying of Jesus on the matter, Paul does not presume to make one up, and this is not an isolated incident, for he does this again later in the same chapter (1 Corinthians 7:25).

What about sayings of Jesus outside the New Testament? Well, it may surprise people to find out that there are sayings attributed to Jesus found outside the four Gospels. Scholars refer to them as “agrapha” (unwritten). This may initially seem to confirm Bultmann’s conclusions, but Edwin Yamauchi clarifies both the source and impact of the agrapha, based on the recent studies of O. Hofius and of Joachim Jeremias.

Edwin Yamauchi

Edwin Yamauchi

“Hofius agrees with the earlier study of Jeremias that there are few agrapha which can be placed on the level of those in the canonical Gospels. The vast majority of the agrapha are dependent on Gospel materials.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.219)

Yamauchi also mentions Hofius’ conclusion here, that he finds it very doubtful that the early church freely, and without inhibition, produced sayings of Jesus on a large scale. Now, there were extrabiblical Gospels produced, clearly claiming to be sayings of Jesus, but most scholars consider these to be much later than the New Testament Gospels. I will have more to say about these so-called Gospels later in this series, but suffice it to say here that these Gospels also depend on the biblical Gospels. The authors of these extrabiblical Gospels put words in Jesus’ mouth to be sure, but they did so to justify their heretical teaching against the already established Gospel message. A minority of scholars would have us believe that there was no established Gospel message, but even many of them still acknowledge that the four Gospels were written earlier than the other Gospels. So, it can be said that if we want to know what Jesus said, we should be looking primarily in the four Gospels.

RightObj53Another area to consider is Bultmann’s criterion of dissimilarity. As a reminder, Bultmann only considers a saying of Jesus authentic if it is unlike Judaism before Jesus and also unlike Christianity after Him. Now, this criterion can be helpful in positive identifications of historical material. However, I believe it is a mistake to use it negatively. What I mean by that is a saying attributed to Jesus would be very unlikely to be a fabrication if it did not come from the Jewish roots of Jesus, nor from the beliefs and practices of the Christian church that followed Him. It also bears keeping in mind what I have already discussed about how the authors of the Gospels had specific purposes and wanted to write what was relevant for their audiences. So, it can legitimately be used in this positive way. On the negative side, it would be to deny that any saying that is not dissimilar is authentic. This seems to me to be to be quite unreasonable and New Testament scholar Darrell Bock speaks along the same lines.

Darrell Bock

Darrell Bock

“…if both sides of the dissimilarity are affirmed, so that Jesus differs from both Judaism and the early church, then Jesus becomes a decidedly odd figure, totally detached from his cultural heritage and ideologically estranged from the movement he is responsible for founding. One wonders how he ever came to be taken seriously.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.91)

Even more than asking how Jesus could be taken seriously, we could ask what He even said that made Him the central figure of this movement that would depend so little upon His actual words. I am not saying that no disciple has ever put words in the mouth of their teacher, but we must ask if this seems like the case for the Gospels. I have argued elsewhere regarding the origin of Christianity that it needs a significant explanation for the movement to have got going as it did. What are we to say in light of double-dissimilarity? That Jesus uttered several loosely connected sayings and His disciples took it from there? I think not. RightObj55aJesus is the central figure of the Gospels and He continues as the central figure throughout the New Testament. Christianity is not primarily a philosophy of life, but following Christ, hence the name Christianity. If all the Christians needed was a name to give authority to their teaching, I do not see how this would be Jesus unless He really said and did at least some of what is attributed to Him. Then of course, if some can be attributed to Him, even if it corresponds with early church belief, the criterion of double-dissimilarity seems rather arbitrary and extreme. Not only does Bultmann’s criterion rob Christianity of its essential qualities, it goes against the pattern that we see in the early church.

A further observation in regard to the early church comes to us from an unlikely source: the Gospel of John. I say unlikely, because this is generally agreed to be the latest Gospel written and is consider by many critics to be the least reliable Gospel. I explained this in the previous article, while at the same time giving reasons to trust John’s Gospel in historical matters. The interesting thing is that for what I will explain now, the argument works either way. So whether you consider John to be later and unreliable, or whether you consider it to be on the same level with the other Gospels, there is evidence that needs to be accounted for. Craig Blomberg brings attention to an interesting feature that is repeated throughout the Gospel of John.

RightObj56“…several passages show how John differentiates what was understood before the cross from insights gleaned only after the resurrection, thus militating against the view that sees later Johannine interpretative insights so intertwined with nuggets of historical information as to be inextricable (cf. esp. John 2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 16:12-13).” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.56)

To discuss one example of this, John 7:37-39 describes Jesus offering living water to those who were thirsty. That is the extent of the saying, but John adds an explanatory note for his readers, making clear that this living water was actually the Spirit given to believers. John also indicates that at this point in time when Jesus speaks, it had not happened, but it happened later obviously, because he knows about it. RightObj56aIf John had the freedom to write his own sayings of Jesus and he wanted to teach his readers about the Spirit of God, he could have easily put “the Spirit” alongside or instead of “living water”. It is significant that he does not do that, but carefully distinguishes Jesus’ words and his own explanations. Blomberg rightly brings attention to the chronological factor, because it shows that John is not retrospectively writing his post-resurrection insights back into the pre-cross narrative. John gives the facts of what Jesus actually said and then turns to discuss their significance. So, on the one hand, if you think John is later and unreliable, it shows that Christians still dealt with Jesus’ words reverently, even toward the end of the first century. The later you place John, the later this phenomenon was continued. It could also be added that this is the general pattern of church fathers after the time of the apostles. On the other hand, if you think John is on the same level as the other Gospels, this just serves to confirm the patterns of the early church already discussed. It is not just John, though, for the other Gospels reveal similar distinctions.

“James Charlesworth, of Princeton Seminary, observes the muted claims Jesus makes about himself throughout the Synoptics, especially in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12 pars.)-claims that would have been more explicit had the later church been creating them.” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.26)

By the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written, many, if not all, of Paul’s letters had been written. It does not take long reading Paul’s letters to realize that Jesus was viewed as the exalted Son of God, Lord and Christ. In fact, as soon as we open Romans, we find all of these things before Paul is done his greeting (Romans 1:1-4). Now, the Gospels claim these things for Jesus as well, but rarely from Jesus’ own lips. RightObj57Based on the views of the church at the time of the writing of the Gospels, it would stand to reason that Jesus would be a lot more explicit about His identity; that is, if the Gospel writers were not restricted by what Jesus actually said. I believe the reason for the lack of explicit claims to Jesus’ messianic and divine identity is that Jesus did not say this much. Often these claims are made only with His disciples. Sometimes they do appear in contexts involving Jesus’ opposition, but it raises trouble every time. We see a definite attempt on Jesus’ part to keep His identity a secret, especially in the beginning of His ministry. This is likely due to the desire to both avoid aggression and misunderstanding of what His messianic identity meant. Whatever the reasoning, we can say that it is another piece of evidence that speaks against the invention of Jesus’ sayings. RightObj-figure 3-3 Perhaps the strongest argument against the invention theory, or at least my biggest problem with it, is the lack of Jesus’ sayings related to various concerns of the early church. I think New Testament scholar Craig Evans expresses this succinctly. RightObj58

“In fact, the oft-heard assertion that many of the sayings were generated by questions and issues that the early church faced is called into doubt by the observation that many of these questions and issues (as seen in the New Testament letters) are nowhere addressed by the sayings of Jesus. There was disagreement over the question of circumcision, eating meat sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts, Jew-Gentile relations, and qualifications for church office, but not a saying of Jesus speaks to any of these questions.” (Fabricating Jesus, p.234) This is a significant point, because it is what the whole theory is based on. If Paul could make up a saying of Jesus that said the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, it would have quickly solved a lot of problems, as seen in Acts and the letters of Paul. However, neither the Gospels nor any letters claim Jesus’ authority on this issue. The same could be said of the other issues Evans mentions. This all makes sense if we consider Jesus’ historical context. Surrounded by a predominantly Jewish population in Palestine, questions of whether to be circumcised or whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols would be the farthest thing from the minds of the average person. So, while the disciples could draw on the teaching of Jesus as the basis for the faith in general, they were restricted when it came to many of the specific problems that confronted the churches. We do not see sayings of Jesus on many relevant issues, because He most likely did not address them during His ministry in Palestine. RightObj-figure 3-4 Summary

It is easy to claim that the bias of the Gospel writers and the needs of the church essentially created the Gospels. However, it is much harder to maintain this in light of the evidence. Bias is not unique to the Gospel writers, and not only does bias fail to prevent accurate history from being recorded, sometimes it aids it. Furthermore, the early church was clearly restricted in their use of sayings of Jesus. If they were free to produce their own sayings of Jesus, we would see a much different New Testament than the one we have. Since we have the New Testament that we do, let us then appreciate the Gospel writers’ care in preserving what Jesus actually said and not what they wished He had said.


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