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The Jesus Legend 9: Evaluating the Synoptic Gospels as Historical Sources


The authors are just laying out a way to evaluate the Gospels. First, they make reasonable claims about the burden of proof, that first it lay with the one who makes the claim. After evidence is weighed and conclusions can be made, the burden then rests on those who seek to challenge the accepted view.

They emphasize quite a bit that the Gospels must be evaluated as oral traditions, not as written ones, pointing out a larger amount of accepted variation, for which less theological motivations can be read into. The ways that Matthew and Luke write about Mark reflects not their biases, but shows that oral traditions can be flexible.

To this I’d simply respond that if the flexibility shows a marked pattern, we can reasonably infer certain beliefs are affecting the texts. When some parts of the narrative are copied word for word, and then others come from no where, we can guess that the authors were relying on the text in some sense, not solely on oral tradition, which would be more likely to emphasize the “big picture.” Looking at the Gospels as oral tradition comes into problems when we try to explain the exact copying, and the selectively different details, that differ in theologically important areas.

Kindle Notes:

We conclude that the Gospels are best understood as recitation compositions rooted in the oral Gospel tradition, texts that, while informed by historical and biographical interests, are nonetheless distinctive enough to warrant their classification as a unique genre—“Gospel” (6145).

we will reconsider the widespread historical-critical assumption that the data within the Synoptic Gospels are to be considered historically unreliable until proven otherwise (6169).

In the view of these scholars, the sheer fact that the Synoptics contain miracle reports is enough to shift the burden of proof to anyone who would claim these documents are reliable. In this view, a historical-critical scholar cannot, as a matter of principle, accept as historical reports of supernatural occurrences (6191).

Robert Miller, for example, specifies four features that incline many critical scholars to place the burden of proof on anyone who wants to argue that any particular aspect of the Gospels is historically reliable.1 First, each of the canonical Gospels leaves out important details of Jesus’s life, focusing almost exclusively on the last few years. Second, the Gospels often contradict one another. Third, redaction criticism has demonstrated that the Gospel authors creatively shape and augment the traditional material they use in very significant ways according to their own theological biases and community needs. And fourth, the Jesus tradition incorporated into the four Gospels makes no distinction between the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus and those of the risen Christ (6195).

the principle operative in this first logical moment is that “when someone positively asserts p, he acquires the obligation to defend his claim” (6281).

the criterion that perhaps has been most influential in undermining the reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition is the notorious “double dissimilarity” criterion. This criterion in essence states that our confidence in the authenticity of any particular saying of Jesus must decrease to the extent that the saying in question is similar to teachings of traditional Judaism, on one hand, and similar to what we would expect the earliest Christians to have believed, on the other (6424).

To cite just one objection, since Jesus was Jewish, and since he was, at the very least, the primary influence in what earliest Christians believed, it seems a bit unreasonable to approach with suspicion all sayings attributed to him that sound Jewish and/or like something early Christians would have believed (6432).

There are at least four lines of evidence that come into play in the textual reconstruction of ancient manuscripts.52 The first concerns the quantity of ancient manuscripts attesting a document’s textual transmission. Obviously, the greater the quantity of copies of an ancient manuscript we possess, the greater the potential database for our textual comparisons and reconstructions (6512).

possess roughly 5,500 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, either in fragments or in whole.54 In addition, we possess thousands of ancient translations (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, etc.) of the New Testament, as well as countless citations by early Christian writers (6518).

All other things being equal, it is reasonable to assume that the greater the time span between the original autograph and a given copy of the text, the greater the likelihood that textual corruptions have crept into the transmission process. If a variant reading is consistently supported by earlier manuscripts, there is good reason—all other things being equal—to consider it authentic (6534).

earliest fragment of a Gospel text—the famous John Rylands papyrus fragment (52)—is generally dated to the first half of the second century (ca. 125).63 Of the more than eighty New Testament papyri, over twenty containing portions of one or more of the Gospels can be dated to the third and fourth centuries. Five virtually complete texts of the New Testament date from the fourth and fifth centuries (6541).

A third important text-critical consideration involves the geographical distribution of a text. In general, the wider the distribution of an ancient manuscript, the greater the likelihood of discovering independent lines of witness (6549).

The fact is that, consistent with the way oral performers tend to modify traditions that, communally speaking, are both sacred and identity-forming in nature, the vast majority of scribal modifications of the written Gospels are relatively minor (6614).

in the Gospels themselves, there are only two instances of what could be considered major interpolations—namely, the well-known cases of Mark 16:9—20 and John 7:53—8:11 (6621).

the authors nevertheless consistently demonstrate a concern for transmitting actual history. As textualized oral recitations intended to express and reinforce the oral Jesus tradition, the Synoptics creatively combine elements from a number of genres—including ancient histories and biographies. Given the presence of these generic signals, we can conclude that, among other things, the Synoptic authors reveal a clear interest in reliably passing on information about Jesus’s life and teachings (6666).

studies frequently have confirmed that these traditions are capable of reliably transmitting historical material as well as (some would claim even better than) modern literate historians (6680).

A second preliminary issue historians typically explore when assessing the historical veracity of ancient documents concerns the extent to which the authors were in a position to access and thus transmit reliable history. Were they themselves eyewitnesses of the events they record, or did they at least have access to sources that go back to eyewitnesses? (6686).

The final preliminary question commonly investigated by critical historians exploring the historical reliability of ancient documents concerns authorial biases. How much did the bias of an author affect the author’s perspective of what happened? Did an author have a motive for intentionally distorting the past? Is the author’s work more a piece of ideologically driven propaganda than an accurate recounting of the past? (6756).

First, if Funk’s “bias” argument against the Gospels were carried through consistently, all historical reporting by people who fervently believed and were emotionally invested in what they report would have to be dismissed. Historical information often is initially reported by those who fervently believe what they report (6788).

Note: Can’t we just hold such writings to a higher standard?

what appears to the modern redaction critic as a conscious, theologically motivated divergence on the part of Matthew or Luke from Mark is, in many instances, likely to reflect nothing more than an unconscious paraphrase or a more familiar variant available in the wider tradition (6879).

we have every reason to assume that divergences between the Gospels generally are due to the fact that the semantic contract of the ancient world allowed greater flexibility in recounting a source than we in the modern, literate world are accustomed to (6882).

In this chapter we have suggested that the confusing equivocation connected with the “burden of proof “ debate can largely be avoided by distinguishing the a priori from the a posteriori burden of proof. The former is a methodological principle that should be embraced by all New Testament scholars. The latter reflects the studied, provisional conclusion about the general reliability of a text (6947).

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