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The Jesus Legend 10: The Synoptic Tradition and the Jesus of History


The case comes full circle and the authors use all they’ve argued for to complete the case.

They look at six question:
(1) Does the document(s) include self-damaging details? (2) Does the document(s) include incidental details and/or casual information characteristic of historical reminiscences? (3) Does the document(s) show evidence of a broad internal consistency? (4) Does the document(s) contain inherently improbable events? (5) Does external literary evidence corroborate the document(s)? And, (6) does external archaeological evidence corroborate the document(s)?

Each question, of course, is answered in the affirmative. One of the biggest ways they leverage reasonable accuracy into the gospels is by saying that it all came from oral tradition, which has different standards of accuracy, preserving only the nuggets of truth. This is how they explain away discrepancies in time, in fact, and other little differences. Its hard to see how they can make a case that truth is preserved, while at the same time loosening the standards by which truth is judged. They may say that its the essential parts of the Gospels that are preserved, the little facts, but if the oral reciter has an idea of what the moral of the story is, why not create extra miraculous details to demonstrate the given point? I still find it hard to believe that truth has been preserved so strongly, especially given the huge chances, and incentives, for exaggeration. As for the questions themselves, I think it would be important to have historical context, and other examples of the above demonstrating truth. Robert Price points out all the other miraculous stories that have the above criteria fulfilled, but do any others have them all fulfilled at once, like the authors claim is the case?

Kindle Notes:

The six questions we will explore vis-à-vis the Synoptics are: (1) Does the document(s) include self-damaging details? (2) Does the document(s) include incidental details and/or casual information characteristic of historical reminiscences? (3) Does the document(s) show evidence of a broad internal consistency? (4) Does the document(s) contain inherently improbable events? (5) Does external literary evidence corroborate the document(s)? And, (6) does external archaeological evidence corroborate the document(s)? (6971).

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history (6979).

A convincing case can be made that, in the course of its transmission, the Synoptic tradition tended to “soften” troubling and embarrassing material (6989).

On the assumption of the two-source theory, Matthew and Luke appropriated Mark’s account. Both retain the baptismal account but seem to soften its embarrassing features to some degree. Matthew offers his readers a theological apologetic by explaining that John initially refused to baptize Jesus, wanting instead to be baptized by Jesus. John relented only after Jesus insisted, cryptically adding that it was “proper” for them to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:13—17). Luke can be read as going yet a step further, locating the baptism after John’s arrest and never explicitly mentioning who baptized Jesus (Luke 3:19—22). While our focus is on the Synoptics, we might here simply note that John arguably softened the tradition further still. He retains the account of the witness of God from heaven and the descending dove upon Jesus, but does not even mention Jesus’s baptism itself (John 1:29 (6996).

for any given case, it is just as likely that this softening of the tradition is a result of Matthew or Luke inscribing one of the countless performative variations available within the wider authoritative tradition (7007).

Note: Doesn’t this undermine the case of faithfully reproducing historical fact? The idea that the oral traditions had many variations, from which a theologically biased writer could borrow, only undermines the case for reliability.

For example, among the embarrassing material in Mark’s Gospel, we find that: Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21) Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5) Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3) some thought Jesus was in collusion with, and even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30) Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33; 8:23) Jesus’s healings were not always instantaneous (8:22—25) Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18) and Jesus’s own exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (5:8) Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18) Jesus associated with people of ill repute (2:14) (7025).

Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27) Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (e.g., 2:23—24) Jesus often spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (e.g., 3:31—35) Jesus cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit when he was hungry, despite the fact that it was not even the season for bearing fruit (11:13—14) the disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (e.g., 8:32—33; 10:35—37; 14:37—40, 50) Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43—46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66) (7031).

(e.g., baptism by John, betrayal by Judas, denial by Peter, crucifixion by the Romans) called forth agonizing and varied theological reflection, but not, in most cases, convenient amnesia (7050).

Note: John forgot the baptism. What else could have been forgotten? That some things were included, while others left out, on top of the fact that the painful parts were gradually softened, shows that the authors were not fully conservative, and perhaps the earliest accounts already had significant “softening”.

That the Gospel tradition retains an amazing amount of embarrassing material on the one hand, and so often fails to insert material that clearly would have been of benefit on the other, testifies to their generally strong interest in, and commitment to, preserving early Christian memory of the earthly Jesus (7064).

Kümmel has argued that the Gospels differ from one another sharply in both form and content. The infancy stories in Mt and Luke contradict each other in essential features…. The genealogy of Mt (1:1 ff) and that of Luke (3:23 ff) are wholly different, and the two are irreconcilable. Nor do the resurrection stories represent a unified tradition…. And of the material concerning the public activity of Jesus … there are differences at every step (7199).

A list of some of the better-known issues within the Gospels that have elicited charges of internal inconsistency or comparative contradiction would include the following: “doublets” within a Gospel, where it appears that one historical event has been recorded as two separate events (e.g., the two feedings of the masses in Mark 6:33—44 and 8:1—9) unexplainable omissions or additions within parallel passages (e.g., Matthew’s [5:32; 19:9] addition of the exception clause to Mark’s [10:11—12; followed by Luke 16:18] unqualified prohibition against divorce) chronological conflicts (e.g., Matthew’s collapsing of Mark’s two-day fig tree scenario into a seemingly instantaneous, one-day episode [Mark 11:12—14, 20–21 vs. Matt. 21:18—22]) instances of apparently mutually exclusive reports (e.g., did Jesus tell his disciples to take a staff and sandals as Mark reports [Mark 6:8—9], or not to take them as Matthew reports [Matt. 10:9—10]?) (7212).

Why did Reimarus assume a priori that the Gospels were untrustworthy and could not provide the basis for a reliable harmonistic reconstruction of Jesus’ life and teaching? The reason is that Reimarus was a deist…. Now that Reimarus no longer wanted them to be reconcilable, they were irreconcilable (7249).

Note: So says a Christian theist. Where’s the evidence?

Apparent contradictions are so common when multiple witnesses report on the same event that journalists, investigators, and historians customarily grow suspect that witnesses are not truly independent if there are no apparent discrepancies between their accounts (7273).

Were it not for the discovered photographs, historians who treated the differing traditions of the boys’ tragic hanging as skeptically as many New Testament critics treat the Gospels would be insisting that at least one of the accounts must be wrong. In fact, however, both were accurate (7305).

Note: All the authors show is that it possible, not probable, that contradictions can fit together. It was certainly improbable they the boys were hanged in two places, and it would have been reasonable to question the accounts.

From our perspective, it seems about as unreasonable to reject the general reliability of the Synoptic Gospels on the grounds that they apparently contradict one another at certain points as it would be to reject the essential reliability of the apparently contradictory reports of the Titanic, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, the MacDonald boys, or countless other examples of generally acknowledged historical events that could be given (7324).

Note: We have more outside independent sources for other events,and those events have higher baseline probabilities, with more ideological motivations.

As a wide range of studies have shown, communication within an oral conception/register-both in its oral and written modes-tends to operate with much less stringent standards of linguistic precision than does, say, the modern, Western, highly literate academic world (7456).

Though somewhat meager and of varying degrees of value, this external evidence is arguably more plentiful than we might expect and is consistent with, and largely confirmatory of, things we find in the Synoptic Gospels (7644).

A number of commentators have pointed out that if the storm was accompanied by a strong east wind, it could well be the case that a small boat that started out for Bethsaida on the east side would have ended up in Genessaret on the west side (7791).

Note: A stretch. Given the supernatural event, shouldn’t we hold the story to a higher standard? The authors only provide a bare possibility.

To summarize our broad cumulative case for the historicity of the essential portrait(s) of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels-and against the legendary-Jesus thesis-the general religious environment of first-century Jewish Palestine would not have provided a natural environment for birthing a legend/myth centered around a recent, Torah-trumping, cruciform-messianic God-man. Fundamental countercultural and embarrassing features of the Jesus story provide further evidence against the Synoptic portrait(s) being significantly legendary. The claims that Jesus’s identity was inextricably bound up with that of Yahweh-God and that he should receive worship, the notion of a crucified messiah, the concept of an individual resurrection, the dullness of the disciples, the unsavory crowd Jesus attracted, and a number of other embarrassing aspects of the Jesus tradition are difficult to explain on the assumption that this story is substantially legendary. The fact that this story originated and was accepted while Jesus’s mother, brothers, and original disciples (to say nothing of Jesus’s opponents) were still alive renders the legendary explanation all the more implausible. In our view, it is hard to understand how this story came about in this environment, in such a short span of time, unless it is substantially rooted in history. Moreover, attempts to argue against the historicity of the Jesus tradition on the basis of the alleged silence of Paul or ancient secular writers have not been forceful (7841).

Beyond this, much of what we have learned about oral traditions in orally dominant cultures over the last several decades gives us compelling reasons to accept the earliest traditions about Jesus as having been transmitted in a historically reliable fashion. Considerations from studies on ancient historically oriented traditions support the view that these authors wrote with historical intent and, by ancient standards, historical competency. Finally, as we have seen in the last two chapters, the Synoptics themselves give us plausible grounds for accepting that the basic portrait(s) of Jesus they communicate is substantially rooted in history (7855).

At best, historical reasoning can point in a more or less probable direction. To speak now as Christian theologians: the Holy Spirit, personal commitment, and covenant trust must carry one the rest of the way. If this work has, to any extent, helped to clarify the solid historical grounds for this faith response, it has served its purpose (7879).

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