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A New Way of Looking at the Gospels

In this long and complicated answer to the “messianic secret” in Mark I have explained how 19th century scholars were interested in “source criticism” — the attempt to figure out what the sources of the Gospels were, and in particular, how to explain the “synoptic problem,” that is, the problem of explaining how Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so many similarities, in terms of the stories they tell, often in the same sequence, and even at numerous points in precisely the same words.  The goal in this source analysis was to figure out which Gospel was closest to the time of Jesus and therefore most reliable.

The answer: Mark.  But after some decades Wrede showed that even Mark was not a simple historical account of Jesus’ life, but was driven by literary/theological purposes, causing the author to alter the traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds he had inherited.  That killed for a time the Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Scholars turned to a different interest: what can we say about the traditions of Jesus *before* the Gospels, when stories were being passed along by word of mouth for years before anyone wrote them down.  This was the goal of “form criticism,” which I explained in my previous post.

You might *think* that the reason for moving behind the Gospels to the oral traditions was to get closer to knowing what Jesus really said and did.  But as it turns out, that was not the primary objective of the form critics, only a secondary emphasis and interest.  Many of them weren’t sure there was any way to know.  All we could know is how communties of Christians told their stories about Jesus, and these stories could tell us a lot about the contexts, conflicts, concerns, interests, views of these communities.  And that’s what scholars came to be interested in for some years.

All that changed in the 1950s, withe a return of scholarly interest in the Gospels themselves, as written texts.  The interest was NOT for seeing what they could tell us about the historical Jesus so much as for what they could tell us about the theological interests and views of the authors who wrote the books.  This new form of analysis is called “redaction criticism.”  Here is how I described the method some five years ago on the blog.  I set it up by summarizing some key points about its predecessor, form criticism


In some respects, form criticism put the final nail in the coffin of historical Jesus research, a coffin fashioned by Wrede and Schweitzer. If the stories about Jesus, even in our earliest Gospels, are not accounts of what happened but narratives that were formulated by communities of Christians after his death (as the form critics assumed), well, there’s not much source material left if we want to reconstruct the life of Jesus. And so a lot of scholars gave up trying. For a long time.

The form critics used the Gospels more or less to mine the stories that were in them to hypothesize how they were formed at the oral stage of transmission. The Gospels themselves were not interesting to them as literary products so much. They were interesting only because they strung together a lot of oral stories about Jesus. It was these older (oral) stories that was of primary interest – and not because they indicated what Jesus said and did but showed, instead, but because they showed what was happening in the early years of Christianity when stories about Jesus were being formulated, invented, shaped, and used by the Christian churches around the Mediterranean.

For these form critics, the Gospel writers themselves were relatively unimportant and uninteresting. They took stories available to them and put them into a roughshod narrative, more or less like “putting pearls on a string,” as Dibelius likened it. The pearls – the stories themselves – -were what mattered. In a pearl necklace, who cares about the string?

That view came to be radically changed in the 1950s with the advent of a new form of Gospel analysis called “redaction criticism,” an approach to the Gospels that was highly significant for the 20th century, an approach that was still going strong when I was in graduate school in the early 1980s.  The redaction critics – starting with prominent German scholars such as Willi Marxsen, Gunther Bornkamm, and Hans Conzelmann – wanted to stress precisely what the form critics left out of the equation.   For the redaction critics …

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The Gospel Writers as Editors Rather than Authors
Non-Christian Sources for Jesus: An Interview with History.com



  1. Avatar
    rburos  February 25, 2019

    February has been an awesome month for the blog. I mean it’s a great blog all year, but this has been excellent. It’s kinda like sweeps on tv.

  2. Avatar
    tonysolgard  February 25, 2019

    Bart, you have shown that the transmitters of the biblical text engaged in a certain amount of their own redacting. And you have shown that, early on, there were major alterations of the gospels produced and circulated, such that it is impossible to say what was the “original” text, if even there was such a document. Can we look at the activity of the original redactors as somewhat continuous with the subsequent activity of transmission? Everyone has their own purposes in passing along a text and putting their own spin on it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      Yes indeed. that is the thesis of David Parker’s intriguing book The Living Text of the Gospels.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  February 26, 2019

        Going along with this same line of inquiry… Since we know that the texts were changed by scribes/editors–e.g. the ever-popular Philippians 4:13 had “Christ” added to it–is it fair to assume that other changes were made for which we don’t have textual evidence, or can we say with a high degree of confidence that via textual criticism we know what the original text of the NT said?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 27, 2019

          Yes, my sense is that there were definitely other changes, but I doubt if there were any really major ones we dont’ know about. And no, I don’t think we can know for sure if we have the “original” or not. I talk about this on the blog a good deal. (Maybe try searching for “original text”?)

  3. Avatar
    tonysolgard  February 25, 2019

    The decision to put an oral tradition to writing must be prompted by circumstances. Perhaps the stories were received by someone outside the communities that held the oral tradition and felt that they needed to be written down in order to carry them to another community. If they were written inside the community that held the oral tradition, there would perhaps be more regulation of what was written down and less redaction would occur. Do scholars have ideas about the location of the communities that held the oral traditions? What about the location of the beginning of the written texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      Yes, lots of ideas, and a common area of discussion. But at the end of the day, it has to be highly speculative. (Eg. Matthew was written in a city where there was a large Jewish and a large Christian population Must have been Antioch!!)

  4. Avatar
    tonysolgard  February 25, 2019

    Besides Mark, Matthew and Luke, what scholarship or speculation is there about the Q community’s location and theological interests? The M and L communities, if even remotely possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      We don’t know about locations; nay guesses are pure guesses. Theological interests are tricky for a different reason. Since we don’t have their entire documents, we don’t know really what they wanted to emphasize completely, or to deemphasize at all! Maybe I’ll post on this with respect to Q (the others are almost impossible to track down, since we don’t know if M and L were each a single written source, many sources, some of the oral, or … what)

  5. Avatar
    Nichrob  February 25, 2019

    Now I know why, for so long, this subject matter stayed within the “scholarly community” and not disseminated to the general public…., Joel’s books can’t be downloaded, paper only, and they’re $75.00 bucks apeice…. For weekend guitar players, those two factors reduce the “general” market…. However, this is exactly what this weekend quitar player has been looking for, so I’m purchasing both volumes. Thanks Bart…!!

  6. Avatar
    mikezamjara  February 25, 2019

    I have been wondering about the Q source. Do you think It was used as a source in other documents like the non canonical gospels or was mentioned by church fathers? Did it had another name which christians could refer to? According with the two source hypothesis Q was used as a source in Matthew and Luke that means that the source should be popular for at least 10 years (The temporal distance of Matthew and Luke). How is it posible that it disapeared of the christian memory as a source?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      No, as it turns out, our only knowledge/record of it comes from Matthew adn Luke. But that shouldn’t seem weird, that it disappeared. Almost *all* the early Christian writings of the first two centuries disappeared!

      • Lev
        Lev  February 26, 2019

        I thought the gospels of Thomas and Hebrews contained Q sayings – did not the authors of these gospels use Q as a source?

        Andreas Lindemann has written a decent paper* on possible Q sayings in the Apostolic Fathers. He identifies likely Q sayings preserved in the following:

        1. 1 Clement (1st C)
        2. Didache (1st C)
        3. Barnabas (c100)
        4. Ignatius (c108)
        5. Polycarp to the Philippians (c109)

        It is striking that after the Apostolic Fathers, Q sayings disappear suddenly. I should imagine Q wasn’t as popular as the other longer, narrative gospels that became canonised and the demand for making further copies of Q dried up and Q was eventually lost.

        * Andreas Lindemann, “The Apostolic Fathers and the Synoptic Problem,” In New Studies in the Synoptic Problem, Oxford Conference April 2008: Essays in Honour of Christopher M. Tuckett, eds. P. Foster, A. Gregory, J. S. Kloppenborg and J. Verheyden (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 2011), p. 689-719.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 27, 2019

          When he says they contain Q sayings, he means they’ve picked up sayings found in Matthew and Luke that scholars think go back to Q. He’s not saying they had independent access to Q.

          • Lev
            Lev  February 27, 2019

            Lindemann concludes his study with these words: “The previous short analysis of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers might have shown that in some of the text we can find traces for the opinion that at the end of the first and beginning of the second century CE Christian authors still had access to the Q source.”

            He goes onto acknowledge that Didache and Barnabas knew the finished gospels, “but nevertheless we have found indications for a tradition that might be identified as Q.” I think he is saying some Christian authors still had access to a written Q source around the turn of the 1st/2nd century.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2019

            Yeah, I don’t buy that.

          • Robert
            Robert  February 27, 2019

            Actually, Lindemann does think that some early authors probably did have some independent access to something like Q (perhaps only verbal) around the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century. Thus Clement and Ignatius. He thinks Barnabas knew both the gospel of Matthew and an oral form of Q (seems rather redundant). I’m not sure about the others.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2019

            Ah, right, so he does. I don’t buy that for a second.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  February 26, 2019

        Shouldn’t it seem weird that Mark *didn’t* disappear? after all, why bother copying Mark when you’ve copied almost all of it in Matthew anyway?
        Isn’t the best explanation of the survival of Mark that early christians realised they were by two different authors and thought the accounts of these authors were worth preserving separately?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 27, 2019

          It’s certainly *notable* that it didn’t disappear. Probably the two were widely used, but possibly in differnt places.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 27, 2019

            But if you have one anonymous text and a second shorter anonymous text, which is almost wholly contained within the first piece, why bother keeping the second? why even consider it a separate gospel and not just the first piece with lots of lines missing?

            I think for the second anonymous text to survive contact with the first there must always be a public understanding that the two pieces are by separate authors, who’s writings are worth keeping separate. The only way for that to happen would be for knowledge of the authorship to have been passed down.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2019

            My sense is that the communities first using Mark did not have Matthew, and so it didn’t occur to them to throw out Mark.

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 1, 2019

            There are so many potential answers to your question, I fear I’ll run out of words before I finish.

            Bart’s is an important one, but let me mention a few others–

            1)Not all Christian communities would have believed in the Nativity story that Matthew may have been the first written account of. Many might, like Mark, have been adoptionists, and thus preferred Mark, and avoided Matthew and Luke.

            2)Not all Christian communities–some of which were still primarily Jewish converts–would have joined in Matthew’s deep antagonism towards institutional Judaism and its leaders, would have hoped these related traditions could still be reconciled.

            3)Mark is a very different book than Matthew. Many might have appreciated the subtle and penetrating way he tells the story.

            4)As you mention, there are stories in Mark not in Matthew. Some of Mark’s versions of shared stories are more detailed than those in Matthew. Memories would be lost.

            5)The notion that they would just toss an entire gospel away like outdated software manuals, is absurd on the face of it–why did so many of the later apocryphal gospels, legacies of long-defunct sub-cults like the Gnostics, have survived?

            Obviously some early Christian writings didn’t survive, but it wasn’t because people said “Well, we have this new text, so let’s just use the old one for kindling.” They had very few texts to work with at this point, and each would have been revered. But some would have been lost, all the same, because that happens in all cultures. To survive, a book had to be copied, over and over. I have no difficulty understanding why a book like Mark’s gospel would be cherished and preserved.

            6)The real question is why Q didn’t survive, but we still don’t know what Q was. Perhaps an unedited compendium of stories, in no particular order, less suitable for their purposes. Mark is possibly the very first instance of a coherent narrative based on stories of Jesus, with well-defined themes, a unique authorial sensibility behind it, that turns these disparate remembrances into an organic whole. In my opinion (please note the qualifier) it does this better than Matthew, but that is hardly proof it came first. It seems you are asking if maybe Mark was preserved because it came after Matthew–but I’m at a loss to understand your reasoning, if that is your point. Perhaps the reason Mark was preserved was that it was widely known to be the first gospel, and a source for the next two. Or maybe it was just plain dumb luck. Why don’t we have Augustus’ memoirs? They sure weren’t replaced by a later revised edition!

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 1, 2019

            Sorry for grammatical error in section 5. Editorial fatigue. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    fishician  February 25, 2019

    Off topic, although it relates to how passages are changed for theological reasons: At the beginning of Jude the author describes himself as a servant of Jesus and a brother of James. Many people therefore take this to mean Jude the brother of both Jesus and James. Maybe just being humble by not calling himself the brother of Jesus? Or, the Catholics would argue he may have been step-brother to Jesus but couldn’t be his actual brother, so the intro is accurate. I’m wondering, was the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity early enough that it may have influenced the author to avoid calling himself the brother of Jesus? Or is there any evidence the passage was modified later by those who objected to the author calling himself the brother of Jesus (like, other variants of the intro)? Similar situation with the book of James, where he calls himself a servant of Jesus and many people assume he is actually the brother of Jesus. Or maybe these pseudonymous authors simply weren’t bold enough to outright claim to be brothers of Jesus, but just implied it?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      Yup, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery I argue that they took steps to indicate to their readers at the time that they were *that* James and *that* Jude.

  8. Avatar
    Cousiza2  February 25, 2019

    Relish this forum, most informative. My question is to what extent do the sermons and other works of the earliest church fathers feature in 19th century scholarly thinking as sources for understanding redaction in Matthew and Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      In the 19th century no one was yet thining of the redactions of Matthew and Luke (from Mark).

  9. Avatar
    Truncated  February 25, 2019

    Bart, I have really enjoyed learning about all the tools and the theories they support to better understand the Biblical narrative. I also appreciate that you state that it was not these tools and theories so much as your view of suffering that changed your religious beliefs.

    I was reading Forged and was stung when I read the sentence near the end: “Maybe it is okay for parents to lie to their children about their own religious beliefs, to tell that that God exists even though they don’t actually think so.” I felt guilty.

    I studied years ago at a fundamentalist seminary that broke off Princeton in the 1930’s, and left after two years somewhat discouraged that all the hard questions and contradictions were answered with complicated and often hard to believe explanations combined with the circular logic of presuppositional apologetics.

    But there are many scholars much smarter than me who can honestly disagree with each other over it, so I shrugged it off and focused on the benefits of grace and avoided digging deeper into the basis of the faith.

    Now with questioning young adults of my own, I read a number of your books and can’t avoid the thought I have had since seminary that it seems unreasonable to demand my affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection (even if TRUE) based on a few witnesses from 2,000 years ago. Even the disciple Thomas demanded proof (and received it).

    I would be interested to know:

    1. if this is actually the same as the issue of suffering (it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t seem reasonable or fair)?

    2. what is the issue I am dealing with?

    3. do you have any suggestions about books that deal with the issue at an educated layman’s level?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      1. I’d say it’s a different kind of issue, a questoin of how to know what happened in history rather than a question of moral outrage at the world; 2. I don’t know; 3. I’m not sure which issue you mean. Problems with the historicity of the Bible? You might start with my book Jesus Interrupted.

  10. Avatar
    holdco  February 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Bit off topic, but I’m not sure where else to ask this question: what did you think of Mike Licona’s argument in your Unbelievable debate regarding the divinity parallels between Mark and John? He said that because Mark uses the word “apocalyptic” in reference to Jesus, and that the Jesus in Mark is “worshipped” according to a precise Greek word, that you have a similar, divine Jesus in both. The host moved on to the next topic before you could get a response in, but even for a non-scholar like myself, the whole thing seemed tenuous, in that such terminology doesn’t appear to provide evidence for the leap between the suffering Jesus in Mark and the mighty divinity in John. It’d be great to get your fuller take on this. Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2019

      I think it’s completely wrong. People in the Bible “worship” kings as well (they bow down before them). That doesn’t mean that the king is the incarnate Word of God. I deal with this kind of issue at length in my book How Jesus Became God.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  February 26, 2019

    Did Paul and the gospel authors go overboard?

    Judaism was neither a “mystery religion” nor a cult of an emperor or king-god/messiah-god, but with Judaism-lite, we get both.
    Paul and the gospel authors did not only create a “mystery religion” with a dying, sacrificed and rising human being, it created an imperial cult of a man who would be the “emperor” in the Kingdom of Righteousness/Heaven/God. There are references to Divus Filius, Son of God (Augustus Caesar), Gaius (human son of earth which would be son of man). Albert Schweitzer says there is the successful phase of Jesus, Son of Man and a failure phase of Jesus, Son of Man. He is talking about the successful phase where Jesus is so happy in his success that he wants to tell John the Baptist, the blind receive sight, the lame walk. He is also talking about the failure phase when the Son of Man won’t appear until the tribulation of the destruction of Jerusalem.

    Furthermore, “mystery religions” went beyond the performance of rituals to the personal–the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine. (Apparently, E. R. Dodds discusses this in his book “Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety.”)

    One can easily see Luke give Judaism the ecstasy and enthousiastikos (filled with the god) when he describes Pentecost in Acts of the Apostles. One can see the solemn sacrament of being filled with the god also when the gospel authors have Jesus being remembered via what is now practiced as Holy Communion.

    Did Judaism need a mystery religion counterpart that Christianity was for it?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  February 26, 2019

      Religion therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.
      – William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”
      = = =
      But to answer the question, Did Judaism need a mystery religion counterpart that Judaism-lite [Christianity] was for it(?), at least Albert Schweitzer liked it and wrote a book about it. Here’s a review. See if you agree.

      Steven H Propp, Top 100 Reviewer on Amazon

      Re: The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle by Albert Schweitzer

      This 1930 book expanded his earlier book, Paul and His Interpreters. He states in the Author’s Preface, “My methods have remained old-fashioned, in that I aim at setting forth the ideas of Paul in their historically conditioned form… Just because Paul’s mystical doctrine of Christ has more to say to us when it speaks to us in the fire of its primitive-Christian, eschatological, manner of thought than when it is paraphrased into the language of modern orthodoxy or modern unorthodoxy, I believe I am serving in this work the cause not only of sound learning but also of religious needs.”

      He writes, “The fundamental thought of Pauline mysticism runs thus: I am in Christ; in Him I know myself as a being who is raised above this sensuous, sinful, and transient world and already belongs to the transcendent; in Him I am assured of resurrection; in Him I am a Child of God.”

      He concludes on the note, “In the hearts in which Paul’s mysticism of union with Christ is alive there is also an unquenchable yearning for the Kingdom of God, but also consolation for the fact that we do not see its fulfillment. Three things make up the power of Paul’s thought. There belongs to it a depth and reality, which lay their spell upon us; the ardour of the early days of the Christian faith kindles our own; a direct experience of Christ as the Lord of the Kingdom of God speaks from it, exciting us to follow the same path.”

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  February 26, 2019

    So, what is the best book or some of the best books on redaction criticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      The old standard is simply called What Is Redaction Criticism. If you want a brief discussion, I give it, illustrating how it works with Matthew, in my book The New Testament: A Hisotircal Introductoin to the Early Christian Writings.

  13. Avatar
    jlantz974  March 1, 2019

    I can’t help but wonder…

    With respect to the accounts of so-called miracles in the canonical gospels, do we have any evidence regarding how much of these stories were edited – or perhaps more importantly embellished?

    Here is a post I made on the member forum:

    Unless, I am mistaken, however, one assumption runs throughout the threads: The accounts of miracles in the NT are accurately recorded. If they are, then our discussion should center on their interpretation in the context of first century A.D as above. If not (say they were embellished by the evangelists), then from my perspective any consideration of Jesus’ miracles by default is relegated to the themes of metaphor (i.e. marvelous stories with viable life lessons, but not factual).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2019

      As you might imagine, the matter is hugely debated among scholars, with conservatives thinking that the stories are completely accurate and critical scholars on teh far other side thinking none of them actually happened. I’m in the latter camp. Most scholars are probably in between the two, but there’s no one opinion.

  14. Avatar
    mjkhan  March 9, 2019

    Jesus clearly said he came for none other than Jews,thus stressing it twice and he called Non jews as dogs and pigs so what is the justification in christianity being followed by billions except that chrsitanity today is not what Jesus taught but what church made on assumptions.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2019

      In the Christian tradition, after his death Jesus directed his disciples now to take the message to all peoples, not just the Jews.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  March 15, 2019

        Do you think the Great Commission is historical? In Matthew 28, that section includes a Trinitarian baptismal formula [in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost] that strikes me as probably anachronistic. I realize textual criticism doesn’t help here, since all early manuscripts include it. But, if one thinks [as I do] that this saying is out of time, why not the Great Commission itself? This issue came up in the member-discussion section in a thread I initiated about how strictly Jewish Matthew’s congregation was, and whether they allowed non-Jews to join without converting to Judaism.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2019

          No, I definitely think it was a later reflection on the idea that surely Jesus himself commissioned the missionary work among the gentiles.

  15. Avatar
    Conedawg  April 28, 2019

    Mr. Ehrman,
    I wanted your opinion on why the disciples and apostles were so shocked when they had learned that Jesus rose from the grave. They knew he was the Son Of God, they had seen his miracles, they had to have know about the prophesies from the past that foretold that this was going to happen. Jesus told them himself said it was going to happen. If there was anyone’s word you was going to trust, wouldn’t it be Jesus? I look forward to your response.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2019

      I’m afraid you may not like my answer! If you’re talking about the real historical situations, I don’t think the disciples *did* know he was the Son of God and had done miracles. Those ideas about him came about only *after* they came to believe he was raised from the dead. It’s all very complicated, but this entire issue lies at the very heart of New Testament critical scholarship — a whole different world from the one most of us were raised on when we thought that whatever the Bible said (about Jesus’ life, e.g.) was simply historical fact. If you’re interested in pursuing this, I’d suggest starting with a book on either the Gospels or the historical Jesus or both — maybe my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, where I explain it all.

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