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Ancient Forerunners of Modern Gospel Critics

In my previous post I argued that critical scholars who insist that the Gospels are not historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus – even though they do contain some historically accurate information, which needs to be carefully and cautiously ferretted out of their narratives – are not trashing the Gospels.  They are trashing unfounded fundamentalist assumptions about the Gospels.  In this post I’d like to argue that this view — that the Gospels are not sacrosanct-historically-accurate-to-the-very-detail accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus — is not merely a modern notion that emerged during the Enlightenment.  It is that, to be sure; but it’s not merely that.   In fact, I would argue that this is the earliest attested view of the Gospels from earliest Christianity.

Let’s assume for this argument a view that most scholars hold and that I could demonstrate if I wanted to spend a lot of time doing so, that Mark was the first of our Gospels and that Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark.   If that’s what we think (and it’s what “we,” speaking with the “royal we,” in fact do think, along with 99% of the biblical scholars on the planet), then we can ask: did the authors of Matthew and Luke consider Mark to be in inviolable, sacrosanct, completely accurate account of what Jesus said and did?

The answer is obvious – so obvious that it’s amazing that it’s never struck most readers (including most of us!  It didn’t strike me for about ten years after starting to read the Gospels carefully).

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Why the Critical View of the Gospels Matters Theologically/Religiously
Why Are You Trashing the Gospels?



  1. Avatar
    DonRuth  July 14, 2014

    Regarding “horizontal” reading, some years ago I read The One Year Chronological Bible, New Living Translation. It opened my eyes to the inconsistencies in the Gospels.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 14, 2014

    Never thought of it that way! Great presentation of the argument.

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    gavriel  July 14, 2014

    But still, the early church kept on copying the Gospel of Mark long after it had become incorporated into and modified by Matthew and Luke. Why?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

      It was read as well! Just like today, even though scholars realize Matthew nad Luke took it over for their acocunts.

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    magpie  July 14, 2014

    This passage in Luke surely attests to the fact that people even two thousand years ago recognized the fallibilities inherent in eyewitness testimony, even though they would not have referred to it in those terms. I can almost hear Luke saying to a fellow believer, “You know that Mark, always putting his own interpretation on what he reads and hears. Now here is what really must have happened and what it meant.”

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    RonaldTaska  July 14, 2014

    How interesting. So If Mark were perfect, the authors of Matthew and Luke would not have had to revise it. I had never thought of it this way before. Thanks.

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    GoodFellaJack  July 15, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, your posts on this blog are pure gold – for a lay enthusiast from outside the biblical studies field, they are absolutely fantastic stuff to digest just while browsing the Facebook news feed. Such a simple fact – the gospels were written in response to one another – yet it goes over most of the human race’s heads, including scholars until the nineteenth century! I’d love to ask what your opinion is on Mark Goodacre’s ‘Case Against Q’. I understand he believes that Luke was using Mark and cribbing from Matthew as well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

      I think he makes the best case that can be made. And I’m not convinced. 🙂 It still seems to me that despite its problems, the Q hypothesis is the least problematic option.

      • Avatar
        toejam  July 16, 2014

        I like Maurice Casey’s solution (not that he invented, but he was the first scholar I read who articulated it): That Luke used both Matthew and Q-like sayings traditions. I think James Tabor thinks along these lines too. This would certainly help explain why it is that sometimes Matthew appears to hold the earlier reading, and at other times Luke does. The only problem is that it becomes a bit of a “missing-gospel-of-the-gaps” type of argument (i.e. you can have the hypothetical gospel do whatever it is you need it to do to fit a presupposed theory).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2014

          The problem with that view, as usually noted, is that it unnecessarily multiplies unknown quantities. If you have Luke using Q, you don’t *need* him to be using Matthew. Sometimes Matthew and sometimes Luke has the older version of a saying because sometimes one of them changes Q and sometimes the other one does. So it may be *right* — but it’s usually seen as unnecessarily complicated and unprovable. (unprovable because if Luke did use Matthew, there is scant evidence, then, that there even was a Q)

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    nichael  July 15, 2014

    This raises an issue I’ve wondered about concerning those gospel-writers who modified their sources: To what extent do you think they were trying to “consciously” or “actively” alter the meaning of their sources vs doing what they might see as making “simple clarifyications” or “minor corrections” to what they might understand as obvious errors in their sources? To give a couple of examples:

    In the Gospel of the Ebionites (who, among other things, were vegetarians) John is said to eat “honey and cakes”. It doesn’t seem to too hard to imagine an Ebionite scribe coming upon the original (“honey and locusts”) and saying to himself “Look, that dolt of a scribe miscopied that one letter” and making the obvious (to him) correction.

    Or to take a more fanciful case: If we were making a copy of a Biblical passage and if our source –to pick a famous example– read “Thou shall commit adultery”, I’m sure none of us would pause for a second before making the equally obvious (to us) correction.

    In neither case is the copyist trying to deliberately alter the meaning of the original; we’re just trying to make sure that those who read the resultant copies don’t fall prey to the same erroneous misunderstanding.

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    JBSeth1  July 15, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    I have a question about Luke and his statement that he was going to, “write an orderly account”.

    In the past, I have always taken this to mean that Luke was going to write an account of the events, as they happened, in “chronological” order. But now, I’m not so sure.

    Perhaps he meant something else, like an honest or truthful account, but not necessarily an account of the events as they occurred in “chronological” order.

    What do you think he meant by this? Any thoughts?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

      My sense is that if he was only interested in chronological issues, he would have rearranged his material but not significantly altered it.

    • Avatar
      Scott F  July 16, 2014

      My sense is that by “orderly”, Luke meant to put the accounts in their (really His!) context. So where Matthews tends to present the Q material in clumps, ala the Sermon on the Mount, Luke moves some of that material into various places where it might more naturally have come up. Of course he also makes sure the material fits his theme of relief for the poor. Depending on what the original beatitudes said in Q – or Matthew:- shout out to Dr Goodacre 🙂 – he could have stripped the “in spirit” bits out to suit his own purposes.

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    ktn3654  July 15, 2014

    I think you have a good point insofar as Luke and Matthew actually altered Mark. But not insofar as they added material to Mark, or omitted some of Mark’s own material. Even if Luke and Matthew had thought Mark was entirely accurate, they might have thought it was incomplete, or that it included some unimportant and confusing items.

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    toejam  July 15, 2014

    Sort of related, but not really: I’ve been thinking today about Josephus’ infamous story of the “other” famous Jesus apocalypticist, Jesus ben Ananias. The similarities between these two Jesus are striking. Do you think they are clearly two different people? What are your thoughts on the idea that Josephus’ recollection of Jesus ben Ananias is actually a legend that originated with Jesus of Nazareth? Or perhaps vice-versa – that the Jesus of Nazareth legend of the gospel traditions originated with people telling stories about “that crazy guy”, Jesus ben Ananias?

    E.g. Where I grew up there used to be an old homeless man who collected shopping bags. He’d been collecting them for 20+ years and literally had trolleys full of them. In the school yard, there were always these crazy rumors about him – that he used to be a famous scientist before he went mad, that he murdered his wife, that he’s not really mad but doing a lifelong social experiment etc. School yard legend. But looking back on it now, the more reasonable explanation is that he was simply (sadly) just a poor homeless guy with a mental condition. Using this as an analogy, it would not surprise me if both the gospels and Josephus’ account of Jesus ben Ananias are actually two divergent traditions that originally started from the same historical person (whether Jospehus or the gospels being more accurate being lost to history). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

      Yes, I suppose this has been suggested before. The problem is that Josephus dates both Jesus’s pretty exactly: one is in the days of Pilate and the other is in the days of the Jewish revolt (40 years later). If they were from the same time period, there’d be more to go on.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 15, 2014

        I remember that years ago – before I’d ever heard of Jesus ben Ananias – I used to hypothesize, in my casual way, that the “Jesus” worshipped by Christians might have been based on a conflation of events in the lives of *several* different men. Just because the name “Yeshua” was common at the time, *and* might have been an obvious choice for either a “spiritual” name or a nom de guerre (recalling the earlier “Yehoshua”). I was only convinced otherwise by your Great Courses lectures.

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    Xeronimo74  July 15, 2014

    Very good point!

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    gabilaranjeira  July 17, 2014

    Excellent post. So simple and yet so brilliant.
    Special thanks for this one!

  13. Avatar
    chrisbartley  August 4, 2014

    Fascinating, thank you!

    May I make a small suggestion? I’ve read several of your books/posts in which you refer to horizontal vs vertical readings of the gospels. My tiny brain can’t ever seem to remember what you mean, and I always have to think it through. Can I suggest maybe using the words “parallel” and “series” instead? Maybe those are too technical sounding, but they seem easier to me to immediately grok. That is, it’s much more obvious to me what “read Mark and Luke in parallel” means, as opposed to “read Mark and Luke horizontally”.

    Again, thanks, and thanks for making such a deep and complex topic so accessible, fascinating, and entertaining. I’ve read (well, actually, listened to) eleven of your books (including several of the Great Courses) and am currently working through How Jesus Became God (with Did Jesus Exist? and three others waiting in the queue). Thanks!

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