Lecture 07: Questions Four and Five
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Questions Four and Five
Question 4: Would the Gospel Writers have Wanted to Preserve Accurate History?
Would the Gospel writers have wanted to preserve accurate history? Are we presupposing what we should have started with? Am I assuming that these are historical documents, yet I haven’t demonstrated that yet? So we are talking about principles of analyzing ancient history and biographies? Perhaps we need to step back first. Why might there be reasons to be suspicious of historical intend of the Gospel Writers? They were fighting an uphill battle! Their views about Jesus were that he was the unique God-man who had done something that no other human being had ever done, become God incarnated himself in human history, working amazing miracles, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God and dying an atoning death and being bodily raised from the dead. That is the uphill battle to convince people of, if on top of that we have the humdrum stories of what Jesus said or taught on various occasions. The living eyewitnesses who had not become his followers, including some very powerful Jewish authorities, could have simply taken over what was being said and told the crowd that these people was charlatans. It didn’t happen that way. The story would have been debunked from the beginning, but that never happened. Ah, but someone said, didn’t the first followers of Jesus appear to expect that the end of the world and their master’s return coming quite quickly. Yes, there are passages that suggest that. That would be 1st Thessalonians 4 & 5 which is a classic example. Well then, if you think that the end of the world is imminent, would you really have a historical interest to preserve in detail the life and teachings and ministry of the founder of that religion? Who is going to be around to read it and care? This might even be a valid point if there was reason from the New Testament to say that the disciples knew beyond any doubt that would happen. But we don’t find that claim presented. We find the possibility and the lively hope of a return, possibly quite soon but never the certainty. In fact, the first followers of Jesus were all Jews and they had been dealing with this tension since the time of Isaiah of the 8th century BC. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, The Minor Prophets and count the number of times you read a prophet saying that the Day of the Lord is at hand. And eight centuries had passed; where was this judgment day? Where was this messianic era? If the Day of the Lord was at hand, how big is that hand? Were the prophets all wrong? And then in Psalm 90:4 that came to function significantly during the intertestamental period, in the period of the 2nd Temple Judaism. You will know, not from remembering Psalm 90 as such, because 2nd Peter 3 reuses it, ‘the Day of the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.’ In other words, God’s timing is not our timing. If eight centuries had passed and history had recorded the Jewish nation through that period, then Jewish followers of Jesus probably would have had an interest in preserving information about him.
The more serious charge is probably the second one. Doesn’t theology inherently bias a historian? If you are passionately committed to a cause, to a perspective as to who Jesus was, doesn’t that almost by nature dictate that you will not give a fair and balanced perspective on this character? No, I don’t believe it does? That could be the scenario. The Old Soviet Encyclopedia for those who are old enough to remember the Soviet Union before 1990. It used to have a one-line entry under Jesus, ‘the mythical founder of Christianity.’ Almost no one believes this in modern-day Russia; you are more likely to find this at a University in Oregon. What a difference twenty-three years makes? But think about the events of World War II, the Nazi atrocities, a holocaust in which six million Jews lost their lives tragically and agonizingly. Who were the histories who most passionately and articulately and carefully and objectively chronicled the event of those years? In many cases, they were orthodox Jewish historians, passionately committed to a cause, a cause so that their people or any other people would never suffer that way again. And in order to be credible in carrying out and furthering their cause, they had to be truthful in telling the story, as it was and as it happened.
Question 5: Why do we have Four Gospels with the Similarities and differences?
Still there is that nagging 30 or 60 year period between the event of Jesus and the Gospels. Is there anything else we can say about it? So, why do we have four Gospels with the combination and similarities and differences among them? If you have never borrowed from any library or gone online to find the virtually equivalent, you owe it to yourself someday to spend half any hour, at least flipping through the pages of a Gospel Harmony, scrolling down the columns of what sometimes is called a synopsis; that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in parallel columns where particular episodes from the Life of Christ is narrated in more than one Gospel. And familiarizing yourself with the kinds of similarities and differences. Sometimes you will see, even in the Greek translations of Jesus’ original Aramaic words, significant stretches of text that are word for word identical. Sometimes you will see entirely unparalleled segments of an account just in one Gospel. More commonly, you will see the same events but told in different words, in greater detail or more abbreviated; how do we explain all of this? One-piece which corresponds to the fifth point on your handout is that ancient culture meticulously cultivated the art of memorization. Or what has often been called guarded tradition. There were mechanisms in place in culture when the words or deeds of a special person were particularly valued to commit to memory in a culture that was used to this. This was because the majority of people did not know how to read or write. This doesn’t mean that they were dumb; it just meant that this was their culture; they didn’t have access to that kind of education. It wasn’t valued the way we value it today. They cultivated skills of memory that would make us look like imbeciles.
Jewish boys attending synagogue school from age five until about twelve years of age and then a select view going on be rabbis; it wasn’t uncommon for a rabbi to have the Hebrew Scriptures committed to memory. Yes, the whole of the Old Testament! Greek schoolchildren sometimes memorized Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems of Homer about a hundred thousand words in length. And the longest Gospel, Luke, is slightly under twenty thousand words. It would have been literally child’s play to commit that much to memory. How could anyone do this? Often they would put this to music or chant, a beat, a
rhythm, stress it over and over and over again; have traditions in school like not being able to discuss a passage until everyone has memorized it and recite it, because why would you want to discuss something that isn’t memorized as you might misrepresent it, accidently. I would love for that to come back into churches today. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to happen. There would also be distractions and so many other things to hinder our efforts. Jewish children studied one topic, the Torah because it applied to every area of life. There were no video games, no internet, no television, no telephone, and no telegraph; there were no tele anything. There was very little noise that is like we have today. You mental recite your lesson; there are orthodox Jews in New York City and Tel Aviv today who have the Old Testament committed to memory. However, their upbringings were different than mine and probably yours. But that is not all that was going on, or you would have four identical Gospels and you wouldn’t need three of them, so you would have one. The differences among the Gospels, closely match the patterns of ancient storytelling.
There is enough verbatim parallelism for scholars to say that Mark probably wrote the first, Matthew and Luke in many ways followed him verbatim. But Matthew and Luke are each again about half again as long as Mark and in about two hundred and thirty-five verses, admittedly not a scientific unit of measurement. However, the teachings of Jesus are much the same in Matthew and Luke and there is no parallel in Mark, suggested by many scholars that there might have been a source, no longer needed since it was in cooperated into Matthew and Luke, that listed some of Jesus’ most cherished and favorite teachings. We know that people did that in the ancient world. Today, they would be on a DVD and would be called, ‘The Best of Jesus.’ It has never been discovered and may never be discovered. It is just a hypothesis which was born in Germany. The German word for source is Quelle and so it became known as ‘Q’. But in addition to that kind of literary parallelism, there are all kinds of places where the wording is not close enough for me to pull Matthew and Mark aside and ask who gets the one grade that I am dividing between the two of them since it seems to be only wrote one paper. It is clear that they are talking about the same event but the wording is different enough to suggest that this follows more the practice of oral storytelling in the 1st century. This is what Kenneth Bailey has called informal controlled tradition. It is what Albert Lord has called flexible transmission with fixed limits. When the community got together to hear one of the authorized transmitters of the sacred tradition, tell the story that needed to be fixed and kept in people’s mind for all different kinds of occasions. Depending on the context, certain things might be included in one retelling and not in another. The writer could abbreviate or even para-phrase. This was a world that had not even invented a symbol for a quotation mark. Don’t let red letters fool you; they really should all be in black. A quote may be nothing more than an accurate summary in the words of the Gospel writer of what he understood what the speaker to have said and to have intended. They could explain, they could have abbreviated and some have suggested that parameters of ten to forty percent of long epic narratives differences from one retelling to the next, which is almost the exact amount of differences you will find in most parallel passages in the Gospels.
Quite recently, there is also the discipline of what is called social memory. I would love to talk to your leadership and find out how social memory is or not being used at your church. I have seen it used powerfully and effectively in local churches. Nobody has to say anything, nothing official has to be done, but if someone comes every Sunday for six months, they will have heard spontaneously several times from the pulpit a few times in Sunday School Class, maybe in a home Bible study, maybe at a special missionary event, whatever kinds of things gather large numbers of people together, they will have heard the basic formative and exciting spirit-filled events that has brought the church where it is today. Because it is so encouraging to hear how God has built the church. They could be done extremely effectively. Any individual apart from that might not learn the history or learn it as quickly or have it cemented in our memories. But when you hear it repeatedly, you will remember it. The Gospel writers did not live in splendid isolation each on top of mountains. They were interacting with fellow Christians, they were preaching the word, and they were pastoring congregations. They were traveling as missionaries telling these stories countless times and inevitably they were fixed language that you learned to tell stories in. And some of that would have been identical from one retelling to the next and some of it would vary according to the time. Social memory can turn manipulative. If you lie long enough repeating the lie, it can become truth for the person telling it. But it doesn’t have to be used manipulatively; it can be used genuinely as well.