Lecture 03: Memory, Authorship, and Miracles | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 03: Memory, Authorship, and Miracles

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: Memory, Authorship, and Miracles


I. Memory

Assumptions play a role in thinking what is authentic and what isn’t. It is not just pure science. Another point which should be encouraging is the role of the Holy Spirit. Remember in John 14:26 in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit who the Father will send in my name will instruct you (the eleven disciples) regarding all things and cause you to remember everything that I have told you. Now, that verse isn’t going to convince a skeptic that there should be more ‘red’ in the Bible and less ‘black’ as to the way the Jesus Seminar decided on things. This should be an encouragement to all of us thinking back to this period of oral tradition and the accuracy of their memories, it was one of the functions of the Holy Spirit was to keep the memories of the disciples accurate. So do I have any trouble believing that someone in a rabbinic oral culture under the power of the Holy Spirit remembered the stories about whether the stories of Jesus were accurate or not? I don’t have any trouble at all. My memory isn’t like those who lived in an oral culture.

These are some of the arguments that we can put forth in regard to the Gospels and the Word we have today. Why did the church take so long to write the Gospels as there was a period of oral tradition? This is the nature of orality as they would not have felt the need to write things down in how they used their memory. In our culture, it would be fairly strange not to write things down quickly. I also think that culture had a very strong preference for eyewitnesses. If you could, for example, read about the holocaust or you could talk to a holocaust survivor, which one would you want to do? We would want to hear the story from someone who was actually there. Perhaps this is human nature; there was a real preference to hear the firsthand accounts being told. So, as long as there were firsthand witnesses, the apostles and disciples and some of the hundred and twenty in Acts who experienced Pentecost, the preference would have been to hear their experience of the story. Eusebius is a 4th-century Christian historian and he cites Paypius who was early 2nd century. So Paypius says that he would rather hear the living voice of someone then read it. So people have a preference to hear firsthand accounts of those stories about Jesus. But as those who were with Jesus in the beginning slowly passed away, more written accounts began to show up.

The challenges that are coming these days in regards to oral tradition are basically saying that there is a gap between what Jesus did or said and when it was written down. So that gap period between the event and the writing, it was when stories were told by word of mouth, hence oral tradition. During that period of oral tradition even if the writers of the Gospels were eyewitnesses, memories were faulty. Because of this we can’t trust that period of time. This is what is being said to discount the reliability of the Gospels. Recent attacks on the believability of the Gospels come particularly from a professor by the name of Bart Ehrman at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He attended Moody Bible Institute and then went to Wheaton Bible College, two very conservative schools and then he went to Princeton to study with Professor Masker and following that he became an agnostic. He doesn’t think the Bible is true; he certainly doesn’t think that Jesus is God. Professor Ehrman is aggressively attacking the historical believability of the Bible. He seems to be writing a book on every different aspect of this whole issue. He is a very good scholar and very bright and he is a good writer and extremely good at debating and he is having an impact because of this. The book he wrote in this particular issue is on how Jesus became God, exaltation on a Jewish leader from Galilee. He is willing to say that Jesus was a Jewish teacher, but he was not God. He says that the church made him into God and hence the title of the book, ‘How Jesus Became God.’ In earlier days, the phrases that were often used were historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. The historical Jesus is the Jesus that actually lived and the Christ of Faith is what we actually meet in the Bible. So the implications are that those two people are not the same person. There was an historical Jesus but the church changed him into something else and he became the Christ of Faith.

II. Authorship

The challenge is that we don’t really know who wrote them, so people do say. And because we don’t know who wrote them, we don’t know if they got the stories right or if the authors changed the stories of Jesus. So authorship is a big issue. Bart Ehrman has written book on this, entitled ‘Forged, Writing in the Name of God’ and the sub-title is, ‘Why the Bible Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.’ It is true that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are anonymous; they don’t say who actually wrote the books. We think the names were not formally attached to them until the Gospels were all put together in a codex, a book format and so the different Gospels needed to be distinguished from each other. So it is true that Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t say who the authors are Bart Ehrman and others are correct as far as that is concerned.

But a traditional answer to this, church tradition is very strong on Matthew writing the first Gospel, Mark wrote the second Gospel and Luke wrote the third Gospel.

The sayings of the early Fathers as they recounted what they had heard; they are actually very strong in terms of the authorship. Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and he was certainly in a position to know what Jesus said. We are told that Mark actually wrote the memories of Peter; in other
words, behind the Gospel of Mark is Peter and his retelling of the story of the actions of Jesus and his teachings. At the same time, traditions are strong that Luke wrote the third Gospel. Luke was a gentile and he wasn’t an eye witness and he tells us this at the very beginning of Luke. He was a traveling
companion of Paul. He had access to information about Jesus and so the traditions are strong that those three men wrote the first three Gospels. Not only is this tradition strong, but all three of those are in a position to know what actually happened, to know what Jesus actually taught and then to write it down in a trustworthy manner.

Connected with this is the issue of dating the Gospels. We have a host of different arguments and beliefs as to the dating of these writings: we have the evangelicals and those who are more liberal critics. I use the word liberal critics even though I don’t like putting tags on things. So perhaps I should say non-evangelical scholars instead of liberal critics. So evangelical scholarship thinks Mark wrote the Gospel in the later ’50s or early ’60s. More critical scholarship dated it to late ’60s or early ’70s. For Matthew, the date ranges from the ’60s to the ’80s as well with Luke. John would have been written somewhere around the ’80s or ’90s. They were all written within about 60 years of the events of Jesus. In an oral culture of the time, this was not a long time and it is not that long when you compare it with other ancient biographies. For example, Alexander the Great died in 323 BC and his biographies were written in the late 1st century and early 2nd century AD. So, this was about 400 years after Alexander had lived. Interestingly, we trust those biographies and we think they convey basically accurate information. So when you look at those 400 years, then all of a sudden sixty years in an oral culture doesn’t seem to that long of a time period. So, we have good strong traditions as to who wrote the first three Gospels; they were people who would have known Jesus and his teachings and it was written in a relative short time frame. This is one way of looking at the authorship and dating as being trustworthy.

There is another way to look at this; both Darrell and Crag will spend some time in their sessions talking about this. The challenge is this: as we didn’t know who wrote them, the church was sitting there with these three anonymous Gospels and they wanted people to trust and believe them. The charge is often
put forward that they simply decided on Matthew, Mark, and Luke and they felt that people would respect their writings. So this is how the charge is often made. In a sense, there is some truth to that because when we look at other books that were written after Christ supposedly about him where somebody would make up a story about Jesus or Paul. We have the acts of Peter where somebody made up stories and they wanted people to believe it. We know this happened. But the question is; did this happen with Matthew, Mark, and Luke? The argument is whether the church was willing l to go take a name and attach it to an anonymous gospel, would they have picked Matthew, Mark, and Luke? I don’t believe they would not have picked these three people to give credibility of an anonymous gospel. For example, Mark was the person who left in the middle of the first missionary journey. It was the time when Paul and Barnabas ended up going their separate ways and a disagreement. So why would anyone attach Mark’s name to the second Gospel. There would be no reason to, except that there was a very strong tradition that Mark wrote that Gospel and the church honored that tradition. And it was important for the church to get this right. Another way of looking at it, sense we know from Paypius, the church historian, through Eusebius, Mark was really writing down the memories of Peter. Why isn’t it the Gospel of Peter as he was the person who stood behind it? Apparently, the church wasn’t willing to ignore the traditions which said that Mark wrote it. This tells you how the church viewed authorship; they weren’t willing to ignore traditions.

What about Matthew? Even though he was one of the twelve, he was a tax collector. But in our day and age, it is probably difficult to understand the total disgust and perhaps even hatred that Jews had of tax collectors. These collectors who were Jews were traitors to Israel; they were Jews who had aligned
themselves with the Romans. It is not that they just took money from the Jews; they took it and gave it to the Romans. So why would you pick such a person to name a Gospel for? This is especially so for a Gospel geared for a Jewish audience. The Jews would dislike his name the most. It doesn’t make any
sense, unless, the church understood that Matthew wrote that Gospel and they respected that and thus, attached his name to it. The same applies for picking Luke for a Gospel name. Luke wasn’t an eyewitness even though he was part of Paul’s traveling companions. Remember, he was a Greek, he wasn’t a Jew; he wasn’t an eyewitness of the events of Jesus; so why would you attach a gentile’s name to a Gospel when you are trying to give the book credibility. It doesn’t make any sense, but the conclusion was that the church wasn’t willing to attach just any name to the Gospels. But what they were willing to do, was to respect and to accept the strong traditions as to the authorship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, even though Peter was behind Mark, Matthew was a tax collector and Luke was a gentile. So this whole argument with the authorship just falls; yes, they were anonymous Gospels, the church tradition was very strong that it was Matthew, Mark, and Luke who wrote those Gospels. These people had direct or very close indirect access to the stories of Jesus. The church wasn’t willing to attach just well-known names to the Gospels just to get people to believe them. The church wanted to honor the traditions and that’s why we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I think this is a fair conclusion to end up with.

III. Miracles

In observing the ministry of Jesus, he demonstrated one of the visible signs of his inauguration of the kingdom of God would not only be the dispensing of the Holy Spirit (John 7:39), but also the ability to perform miracles. Scholar Werner Kahl provides some insights about three characteristics of miracles workers: first, the person who has inherent healing power is call a ‘bearer of numinous power’ (BNP), Kahl uses the term ‘petitioner of numinous power’ (PNP) for those who ask God to perform the miracles. Between both BNP and PNP is what Kahl calls the category of a ‘mediator of numinous power’ (MNP), which can apply to an individual who mediates the numinor power of a BNP in order to produce a miracle. Kahl concludes being a MNP or PNP clearly is not the evidence of deity, whereas being a BNP could possibly be evidence of a deity. Eriv Eve observes that only the God of Israel is the only BNP while Moses is an example of an MNP and Elijah is an example of a PNP, After studying the miracle account in Josephus, Philo, the wisdom and the apocalyptic literature of the period, as well the Qumran tests and Jewish literature such as Tobit, Eve concluded that it can be demonstrated that the God of Israel is the only BNP. Hence, Eve contends that the Gospels display Jesus’ miracles as departing from Jewish tradition since Jesus is shown to be a BNP and his miracles point to him as being the incarnation of the God of Israel. It must not be forgotten that Jesus did not perform any of his miracles independently of the Father; instead Jesus did all his miracles in union with the Father (John 5:36; 10:38; 14:10-11) so that His audience would see the unique relationship between the Faith and the Son.

Honi the Circle-drawer was a Jewish scholar of the 1st century BC, prior to the age of the tannaim, the scholars from whose teachings the Mishnah was derived. During the 1st century BC, a variety of religious and splinter groups developed amongst the Jews in Judea. A number of individuals claimed to be miracles workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, the ancient Jewish prophets. The Talmud provides some example of such Jewish miracles workers, one of whom is Honi ha-Ma’agel, who was famous for his ability to successfully pray for rain.

Apollonius of Tyana was a Greek Neophythagorean philosopher from the town of Tyana in the roman province of Cappadocia in Anatolia. He was an orator and philosopher around the time of Jesus, and was compared with Jesus of Nazareth by Christians in the 4 th century and by other writers in modern times.

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