Bart’s Blog

Question about Eyewitnesses and the Gospels

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Please Note: Normally I will be addressing questions that I receive in the members only site (“Bart Answers His Readers”). But occasionally I will post a question and answer here, in the Public Forum, to give a sense to everyone what sorts of things are available for anyone willing to give a bit to charity and to join the site.

QUESTION

One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus’ life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus’ life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness.

RESPONSE

It’s a very good question, and one that I get asked, in a variety of ways, a lot. My view is this: when Mark was writing his Gospel (the first to be written) in say 65 or 70 CE, there probably were indeed people still living who were familiar with Jesus. At least I would assume that Mark himself thought so. Otherwise it is hard to explain why he included what is now Mark 9:1, where Jesus tells his disciples “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” If everyone from the first generation had already died, then it seems implausible that Mark would leave a saying of Jesus indicating that the End would come before they all died. (I do not, by the way, think that Mark’s Jesus was referring to the day of Pentecost, to the coming of the church, or even to his own Transfiguration, as some interpreters claim, in order to get around the fact that Jesus declared that the end would come before all the disciples died when, in fact, it did not).

But onto my point. Even though there may well have been eyewitnesses alive some 35-40 years after Jesus’ death, there is no guarantee – or, I would argue, no reason to think – that any of them were consulted by the authors of the Gospels when writing their accounts. The eyewitnesses would have been Aramaic speaking peasants almost entirely from rural Galilee. Mark was a highly educated, Greek speaking Christian living in an urban area outside of Palestine (Rome?), who never traveled, probably, to Galilee. So the existence of eyewitnesses would not have much if any effect on his Gospel.

The same is true, even more so, with the later Gospels. Luke begins his Gospel by saying that eyewitnesses started passing along the oral traditions he had heard (Luke 1:1-4), but he never indicates that he had ever talked to one. He has simply heard stories that had been around from the days of the eyewitnesses. And if the standard dating of his Gospel – and Matthew’s – is correct, they were writing about 50 years or more after Jesus’ death. John’s Gospel was even later.

My sense is that most of the eyewitnesses (and who knows how many there were?! Hundreds? Probably not. Dozens?) had died before the Gospels were written; those that survived were carrying on their lives in rural Galilee or Jerusalem. And the Gospel writers, who never say they consulted any of them, probably never did consult with any of them. The Gospels are based on oral traditions that had been in circulation – and changed as a result – for decades before the Gospel writers had even heard them.

And as anyone knows who has been subject to oral traditions – this would include all of us – the stories told about a person can change absolutely overnight! It happens all the time. What happens, then, to stories in circulation for 40 or 50 years, in different countries, told in different languages, among people who never laid an eye on an eyewitness or on anyone else who had? My sense is that the stories get changed, often a lot; and many of the stories simply get made up. It’s just the way it happens And it can be shown to have happened with the Gospels, since the same story is often told in very different ways. Every historian will tell you: evidence matters!

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Discussion

  1. aigbusted  May 14, 2012

    Another important point about Mark is that he couldn’t have gotten all of his info from eyewitnesses (or even people who were close to eyewitnesses) because he screws up quite a bit on his Palestinian geography. In “The Homeric Epics and Mark” Dennis MacDonald shows that the “Sea of Galilee” that Mark speaks of never existed. There is a lake in Galilee, lake chinnereth, but it is only a few miles long is certainly not a sea, as the ancient critic Porphyry well knew.

    • Christopher Sanders  December 11, 2012

      So there isn’t a Sea of Galilee!? I’ve been hearing about that body of water for years!

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 12, 2012

        Yes there is. It’s not really a sea, but just a lake.

        • hypatiabenz  May 21, 2013

          Bart,
          What is your opinion of Dennis MacDonald’s book, “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark?”

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2013

            I think Dennis is really smart and we’ve been friends for years. I don’t agree with him, though, about the significant role played by Homer for the early Christian writings, especially Mark.

  2. Sue Ann Davidson  May 14, 2012

    Ehrman: “Otherwise it is hard to explain why he included what is now Mark 9:1, where Jesus tells his disciples “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” If everyone from the first generation had already died, then it seems implausible that Mark would leave a saying of Jesus indicating that the End would come before they all died.”

    If I understand the logic correctly, you mean that it’s improbable that the author would include Jesus saying something that would evidently be wrong for everyone (no divine kingdom came). But isn’t the birth narrative in Luke similar to this? It contains a census with huge mass migration that didn’t take place (according to historians) that should have happened 80-90 years before. Granted, there where probably no hypothetical eyewitnesses left, but a huge event like that would have been collectively remembered for generations I’d guess. And almost all literate people would have heard about it at least. An interesting question with no answers is what contemporary people thought about this odd claim of empire-wide mass migration.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      Good point. But I’d say that there’s a bit of a difference. Luke’s birth narrative may have been taken to be true by people who didn’t really know what had happened in imperial history 80 years earlier (just as most readers today don’t know, really, what was happening in America in 1930, apart from the fact of a Depression). The problem with Mark 9:1 is that it is a prediction on the lips of Jesus that didn’t come true. I think people would realize that! But I take your point and appreciate it!

      • Lage  April 24, 2013

        Prof. Ehrman,

        Regarding the prophesy from the lips of Jesus himself, what can you say about the claims that some people have about the term “generation” applying to a race of people, applying to a later generation (e.g. genera vs. generos, etc.). Can “shall not pass” be translated from Greek as “shall not START to pass” (some aorist form)? I’m curious if you have written more on the details behind common rebuttals or reconciliations related to the failed prophecy?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 24, 2013

          I”ve never understood this claim. If the disciples want to know when the end will come, and Jesus says that it will “start to come” sometime before “the Jewish race” passes from teh face of the earth — what would that even mean? And why wouldn’t he simply answer their question. If, however, the words mean what they more normally mean, he would be saying that the end will come before his own generation dies out. That not only means what the words normally mean, it makes sense in the context, and is ocnsistent with the other things he says.

          • Lage  April 25, 2013

            Thanks for your reply.

            Ehrman: “If the disciples want to know when the end will come, and Jesus says that it will “start to come” sometime before “the Jewish race” passes from teh face of the earth — what would that even mean?”

            What if Jesus had just implied “start to come” and kept “generation” in its normally inferred meaning. That is, what if we assume that there is no problem with our inference of “generation” and Jesus did mean “generation” just like we assume (within 40-70 years, their lifetimes, etc.), but the problem only lies in the aorist form of “shall start to come” rather than “Shall come”. This would at least have a clear meaning. What is the evidence surrounding the use of this aorist form in Greek? Is it plausible for translators or historians to assume this aorist form fits? I’ve heard the argument before, and I’m curious what the scholarship suggests is most plausible, given the context and its other possible usage in the New Testament, 1st century Palestine, etc. For if these things only have to “start to pass” before they die, one could infer the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., and/or Jesus being raised from the dead (a “taste” of the New Kingdom) as successfully fulfilling the start of these things to pass. I acknowledge that Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet fits within the context of 1st century Palestine, his ties to John the Baptist, etc. I’m just wondering what the scholarship says about the aggressive aorist verb use issue (i.e. “shall start to pass” vs. “shall pass”)? I’m wondering how much merit this rebuttal has. Thank you for your time in answering these questions.

            P.S. I just started reading “Jesus: Apocalyptic prophet of the New Millennium”. I must say that you make a very good case for this view of Jesus, and it is well written. It was after I started reading this book that I began to inquire about some of these grammatical and textual issues (e.g. Greek translation and context) relating to these prophesies. It’s all very fascinating.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 27, 2013

            Do you mean ingressive (not aggressive)? It’s not the normal usage of the aorist tense, which normally denotes completed action.

  3. Adam  May 14, 2012

    You note how stories get changed alot as they are told and retold and that this is evidenced in the gospels. I have heard you mention many real discrepancies. What do you think is the most striking and significant discrepancy between the gospels – if you had to narrow it down to one?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      I can’t narrow it down to one! There are so many. I discuss a large number of the biggees in my book Jesus Interrupted.

  4. John  May 14, 2012

    Thanks for the scraps Dr. Ehrman. I still haven’t joined your site (I give hundreds of dollars a year to Oxfam), but I appreciate a bone now and then.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      No problem. But hey, for just four bucks you can get a month of the whole site!

  5. Scott F  May 15, 2012

    “The eyewitnesses would have been Aramaic speaking peasants almost entirely from rural Galilee.”

    Else where, I believe, you indicate that Paul shows no sign of familiarity with a Semitic language. (I hope I am remembering this correctly) If Peter, James and John were Aramaic speaking peasants, how did Peter and Paul communicate, say, in Antioch? Did Peter have enough colloquial Greek to get by? Did Paul speak Aramaic? Would use of intermediaries to translate been a common procedure?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      Good questions! I wish we knew! My guess is that they either stumbled along like I try to do in Germany or other foreign countries (when I went to Krakow years ago, I tried to check into the hotel by telling the young woman behind the desk: “I am America. I am here to sleep with you tonight”). Or they had translators. Just a guess.

      • Scott F  May 16, 2012

        This all regards my coming dissertation defense in which I will attempt to show that the infamous incident at Antioch was caused when Peter’s protest that the check should not be split evenly 10 ways because he did order the lobster was tragically misunderstood.

      • Christopher Sanders  December 11, 2012

        Omg that’s rich!

  6. Dennis_Steenbergen  May 15, 2012

    And a fine example of Occam’s razor this is – “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.” It can be this simple.

  7. Xeronimo74  May 15, 2012

    I always wondered: why wouldn’t these alleged eyewitnesses (the disciples) have written (or told a scribe to write down) their stories, these alleged spectacular things they had just witnessed? Why would these stories and events only be put into readable form much later? Why wasn’t there a need for this earlier? Because they were part of an apocalyptic cult that expected the world to end soon? Would Christianity have fizzled out without Paul?

    And why didn’t Paul mention the stories told later on in the Gospels? Why didn’t he mention the alleged betrayal by Judas or the doubting by Thomas, both could have been helpful to illustrate his stories and the case he was trying to make?

    Side-note: what do you think about the theory that Cephas and Peter were not actually the same person? There is some circumstantial evidence to support such a claim.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 15, 2012

      Good questions — all of them with lots of possible answers! My main hunch is that the earlier eyewitnesses thought hte End was coming soon and so saw no reason to preserve tradition for posterity. And that Paul didn’t know a lot that later made it inot hte Gospels.

      I wrote an academic article once showing the entire history of the tradition that Cephas and Peter were different people, and making a case that the tradition was right. Not sure what I think these days!

      • Xeronimo74  May 16, 2012

        Oh, that’s interesting! Would it be possible to get that academic article?
        And why are you not so sure about your case anymore?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 16, 2012

          You would need to get ahold of “Cephas and Peter,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 109 (1990) pp. 463-74.

      • Christopher Sanders  December 11, 2012

        So what influence do you think this belief that the end was to come soon had on the oral traditions?

  8. LarryAAngus  May 15, 2012

    Dr. Metzger said Jewish oral traditon was stringent, but there are too many variations, as you give evidence in Misquoting Jesus. And as you say, texts don’t speak for themselves but include the reader’s bias. Thanks for bringing bring greater truth to the “traditon.” Larry Angus

  9. young  May 23, 2012

    i like all your books with the exception of God’s Problem… i hope i had it right?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I’m sorry to hear that!

      • Raymond Wood  May 26, 2012

        Please consider that the author of Job might have admired it, had he the opportunity.

  10. James Dowden  May 28, 2012

    There was a lovely instance of what happens to memories over 40 years in Saturday’s edition of the Times. Matthew Parris wrote about hearing Peter Ackroyd on the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs:

    “A decade earlier [i.e. in 1972] Ackroyd and I had been friends in New Haven, Connecticut, when we were both Mellon fellows at Yale University. Almost everything that imprinted itself on my own bourbon-blurred memory of those days seemed to have been absent from the brief picture he painted on Desert Island Discs. I’m not for a second suggesting that he dissimulates: Ackroyd is one of the most candid men I’ve known, about others and about himself; and on the radio I heard him say nothing that I’d challenge the truth of. It’s just that my most striking and persistent memories of that year, and of him in that year — his whole shape — were absent from the account.”

    The rest of Parris’ op-ed (£££) is here: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/matthewparris/article3426820.ece

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