Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #4: are the four Gospels unreliable since they are based on oral tradition and were written long after the events they describe?

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would sometimes have the class play this game: the teacher would whisper a short message to one student, that student would whisper it to another student, and the message would pass through a classroom of thirty students, one by one. When the last student heard the message, he or she was supposed to repeat it for the entire class. Invariably, the message had changed along the course of thirty transmissions.

One time a classroom wag added a dirty word to the message. He or she must have been thrilled to witness the vulgarity being repeated by all the rest of the students in the class. That was the last time we were ever invited to play that game.

Oral traditions are not highly respected in our society. They are treated as very unreliable. However, anthropologists have found that civilizations which do not depend on printed or digital sources for memory are highly successful in preserving narratives unchanged from generation to generation. These scientists have had enough decades to study oral traditions in Africa, the south Pacific, Siberia, and other nonliterate societies to be convinced that their professional storytellers learn the accounts delivered from previous generations and pass them unaltered to the next generation.

No doubt much of the Bible was oral tradition before it was written. The accounts in Genesis must have been passed from generation to generation before Moses put them into writing. Likewise, the four Gospels bear signs of being derived from oral tradition. Their brief narratives of events, their pithy teachings attributed to Jesus, and their use of keywords to build a framework for the entire account all show that these writings were originally designed to be spoken and to be heard.

Indeed, the custom among Jews of the first century was to have rabbis teach their disciples to repeat the rabbi’s messages. Committed disciples stayed with the same rabbi, hearing the same teachings repeatedly until they could speak them to others; then they were sent out to share the rabbi’s message. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an example of teaching via oral tradition. The verses recorded by Matthew probably were memorized by Matthew through repeated hearings. Even before the death and resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and the other apostles had learned these lessons well enough to be sent to share them with others (Matthew 10:1-42). After his death and resurrection, Jesus again authorized his apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Clearly, they met together and devised a common framework so that, as they shared the message, the entire world—first the Jews and then the Gentiles—heard the same message from the twelve apostles and from those who learned from those apostles.

Therefore, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (II Peter 1:16). John also writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—the life that was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you” (I John 1:1-3).

The New Testament is based upon eyewitness accounts! Why, then, do the skeptics insist that the four Gospels could not have been written within forty years of the events they describe? One basic presupposition of the skeptics is that Jesus could not have known the future. His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, found in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Luke 21, was fulfilled around the year 70. The words of Jesus match the history of the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem so accurately that skeptics insist that those words must have been written after the events they describe. Without this presupposition, there is little reason to doubt that the Gospels were written a mere twenty to thirty years after the events they describe, rather than the more than forty years required by the skeptics.

Fourth century Church historians were far closer in time to the writing of the Gospels than we are. Moreover, they had access to full documents which we have now only in fragments. Those historians say that Matthew wrote the earliest Gospel in the Hebrew language or idiom. Indeed, Matthew’s intended audience clearly consisted of Jewish Christians, familiar with Moses and the prophets, and not needing any explanation of Jewish customs. Mark and Luke wrote for Gentile Christians. Both were indeed second-generation Christians, but Luke tells us that he researched his subject before he wrote. (Since he frequently mentions, in the first two chapters of his Gospel, the thoughts and feelings of Mary the mother of Jesus, it seems likely that she was one of his sources. He probably also interviewed several of the apostles, as well as other eyewitnesses to the work and teaching of Jesus.) Mark is said by the fourth century historians to have written the lessons that Peter taught about Jesus, so Mark’s Gospel is indeed based on an eyewitness account.

John’s Gospel differs significantly from the other three, which may indicate that he was aware of the circulation of those three Gospels and wanted to supplement them rather than repeating them. He includes some of the benchmarks of the oral tradition: the baptism of Jesus by John, the feeding of the five thousand, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection. But John recalls longer discourses from the Lord. He departs from the oral tradition, not to deny its accuracy, but to share additional information. And even if John wrote fifty years after he saw and heard and touched Jesus, he was repeating lessons he had taught repeatedly over those fifty years. His position as an eyewitness is solid.

Many Christians feel no need to question the accuracy of the Gospels because they hold to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture: “All scripture is breathed out by God” (II Timothy 3:16); “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). But one does not have to accept the doctrine of inspiration to consider the New Testament accounts about Jesus to be reliable. During the time of oral tradition, the spoken accounts of the apostles could easily have been challenged and corrected by other eyewitnesses to Jesus. Even as the first written accounts appeared, people were alive who could have set the record straight. The Bible is trustworthy, not only because of inspiration, but also because of its historic track record. J.

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The Synoptic Problem

The “Synoptic Problem” can be summarized in two questions. Why are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke so similar? Given the similarities, why are there differences among those three Gospels?

Until 1786, the Church was almost unanimous in believing that the four Gospels were written in the order used in the New Testament. Since that time, attention has veered to the possibility that Mark’s Gospel is the oldest and that both Matthew and Luke used him as a source. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three. Moreover, ninety percent of Mark’s material is also found in Matthew, and fifty-five percent of Mark’s material is also found in Luke. Mark uses more Aramaic words than Matthew or Luke. (Aramaic is the language Jesus would have spoken with family and friends, but the New Testament is written in Greek.) His writing style is generally considered rougher than the others, causing some students of the Bible to infer that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source but cleaned up his writing in their own books.

We know that Luke’s Gospel was not the first written. Luke reports from the very beginning of his book, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke goes on to affirm that he has investigated what Jesus said and did. Luke must have interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus–probably including Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s account of the birth and childhood of Jesus appears to bear the imprint of Mary’s memories. Given that information, is it more likely that Matthew copied Mark or that Mark copied Matthew? Or is there another explanation that fits the facts in a better way?

Matthew was an apostle. He saw and heard Jesus and spent time learning from him. Mark was not an apostle. Early Christian writers say that his Gospel was based on the preaching of Peter. Matthew’s Gospel is written with Jewish believers in mind. Matthew assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and of first century Jewish practices. Mark and Luke both explain those practices. The Church began among Jews but soon grew to include Gentiles. Given that information, it seems likely that Matthew’s Gospel was written before Mark and Luke wrote.

Why, then, are the books so similar? Instead of insisting that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, some scholars say that the three Gospels had a common source. It did not have to be a written source. The apostles learned from Jesus and then went out preaching about Jesus. Quite likely they had a mutually accepted outline and even a way of describing various events that kept their message unified as they shared it with many listeners.

The common source of the three Gospels, then, is an oral tradition rather than a written document. This explains Luke’s statement that “many” worked to “draw up an account”–not many accounts, but one account. When Matthew preached about Jesus, and when Peter preached about Jesus, and when James and John and Thomas and Phillip preached about Jesus, their accounts were the same because they worked together to create a single story, a shared memory, which would encourage unity in the growing Church.

Why, then, are their differences among the Gospels? Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers man. He divides the ancestry of Jesus into three sets of fourteen. He divides the teachings of Jesus into five groupings, perhaps reflecting the five books of Moses. Writing for Jewish believers in Jesus, he frequently quotes the Old Testament and does not bother to explain Jewish customs. Yet his descriptions are terse and to the point.

Peter was a fisherman trained by Jesus to be an apostle. His natural style of preaching the same message tended to be more vivid, but also rougher, than Matthew’s writing. He skips over the teaching portions of the message (except for the parables) and produces a lively, active account.

Luke was a physician who traveled with Paul. Luke interviewed eyewitnesses, but he probably heard repeatedly the same oral tradition developed by the apostles. He arranges the teachings of Jesus differently from Matthew–but that is no problem, because Jesus probably taught the same messages repeatedly to different crowds. Luke said more than Matthew or Mark about the women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles. He also reported the parables of Jesus with the strongest characters–the prodigal son and his father, and the good Samaritan.

Jesus is completely God and at the same time completely human. In a similar way, the Bible is completely God’s Word and yet was completely written by humans. As the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can accept the Bible to be trustworthy and true. As the writing of humans, we can study it like any other human document, noting different styles among the authors, and even speculating about the sources of their information. As one of my professors used to say, “The Bible is more than literature, which means it is not less than literature.” J.