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Early Gospels: A Messier Scenario

In my last post I was trying to imagine what the situation was with the first and second century Gospels, and proposed a Scenario One in which there were set Gospels, some earlier than others, with later ones using earlier ones for some of their information, along with other information from other Gospels (and oral traditions) that no longer survive. I guess that’s how I tend to view the situation some of the time. But I wonder if in fact the reality was a lot messier than that (I call the first scenario messy because it is *not* the simpler view that a lot of people assume: that there were basically four Gospels from the first century and in the second century the Gospels either borrowed from those Gospels or made things up; that’s a pretty “clean” view of the situation. But I don’t think it’s plausible).


Scenario Two: Much Messier without Fixed Boundaries

I have begun to suspect that the real situation was even messier than the first option I sketched. What if, for example, even with the Gospels that became the four, there were not fixed traditions but loose ones, in which, say, a Gospel went through multiple editions as it was put in circulated and as it interacted with oral traditions that preceded it, as scribes who copied it were influenced by oral traditions that the Gospel itself inspired, that the book itself was in different forms in the written tradition, was also passed along orally, again in different forms, and it influenced other Gospels in one of its *many* forms instead of the one form we are familiar with today?


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But Did It Really Happen?
The Messy World of Second Century Gospels



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  September 25, 2013

    I’ve been considering all these possibilities over the past few months. If it were me I can’t say the chaotic possibilities wouldn’t be enough to make me just throw up my hands, walk away and change professions!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      Ah, not me! It makes it even more interesting!

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        Johnfpowell  October 2, 2013

        I am a newbie to your “blogsite”, but as someone who has come from a math/statistics/probability background, I am wondering if there is some way to link the “zillions of possible scenarios” to a statistical distribution. Since to me the most cutting edge of theology (and I realize you are more of an historian than a theologian), will continue to be various offshoots of “process theology”, where God is in the trenches with us (somehow), and history is not necessarily preordained to have a “happy” ending. This takes free will to its ultimate limit…also the possibility of the ultimate limits of love. Both, in a mathematician’s mind would (happily) be infinity…which is maybe my own personal definition of Heaven! Of course, the “shadow side” (a phrase I love from John Polkinghorne) is that horrible, horrible evil could win out, because we are all such bastards!! Talk about a GOOD God who lays it all on the line!!!

        • Avatar
          Johnfpowell  October 3, 2013

          How long does it take for “moderation”?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2013

            Not sure what you’re asking. I post the comments every day. If one of yours didn’t post, I must have found it inappropriate for the blog. That happens occasionally, but not too often. Or maybe I accidentally deleted it? I don’t know that I’ve ever done that, but all things are possible!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2013

          Great question! I don’t know!

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    TomTerrific  September 25, 2013

    This makes sense to me, Bart, and that is scary!

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    bobnaumann  September 25, 2013

    Were the various apochrophral Gospels (I.e. Acts of Peter) and the Acts of different Apostiles around when the NT was canonized? And were they contenders? Or had they summarily rejected by Irenaeus as heresys?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      Yes, they were around. They may have been contenders in some circles, but not Ireneaus’s!

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    Forrest  September 25, 2013


    Thanks for openly struggling with these issues. It gives me (others too) some type of framework to work these complexities through.

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    SelfAwarePatterns  September 25, 2013

    I’m probably about to show my ignorance, but I wonder if any of the techniques from genetics and/or linguistics might be useful here. In both fields, they have to take limited evidence and try to extrapolate a history. Or course, there may simply not be enough early evidence for that kind of analysis.

    Another thought: wouldn’t even one manuscript from the first century of a recognizable gospel falsify this hypothesis? (Or possibly confirm is it’s barely recognizable?) If it’s true, it seems like the only thing that would ever come from that early period would look like yet another apocryphal gospel? I know this is speculation since we don’t actually have those manuscripts, but it seems like a good idea to identify what evidence could test it the hypothesis.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      Interesting suggestion about genetics/linguistics. I don’t know!

      But on the other quesiton. No, one manuscript wouldn’t demonstrate anything one way or the other, since even in the messiest scenario possible there would have been something like our known Gospels around then, so finding a manuscript of one of them would work for anyhypothesis, messy or not. It would only “disprove” a theory that said our Gospels did not come into existence except by some kind of evolutionary process in the second century: and that’s not the messy scenario I’m sketching.

  6. cheito
    cheito  September 25, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:


    Luke 1:1-Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2-just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3-it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4-so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.


    For example. Luke says that he had many predecessors who had written Gospels. He apparently had access to them. He also says that he had oral traditions at his disposal. All of these gospels and oral traditions would have had their own “spin” on things, and all of them may have been represented in variant forms as they were recopied and retold. So there were not *two* other Gospels that Luke used, but lots of other ones in different versions.


    Many contemporaries of Luke took it upon themselves to write about events they had not personally witnessed concerning what Jesus said and did. Luke on the other hand had reports of the very deeds and words of Jesus handed to him by those who were LITERALLY EYEWITNESSES from the beginning . Luke’s account is not documented from Mark, oral traditions, nor from the accounts circulating IN HIS TIME. Luke sought to relate to Theophilus the exact truth. He had the resources to just that. Luke had the very words and memories of the eyewitnesses. He may have had access to the writings publicized in his time but he did not use those scripts for his account. Therefore you assertion: “So there were not *two* other Gospels that Luke used, but lots of other ones in different versions: in my estimation is not correct.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  October 4, 2013

      Good point you are making. I would like to hear Bart’s response on this.

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    Jrgebert  September 25, 2013

    Could the L material just be made up by Luke and the M material just be made up by Mathew? How can scholars decide that there was sources (oral or written) that these writers used or when the material was just made up.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      It’s *possible* of course. But if some of the material is lacking in the “redactional elements” of, say, Matthew (for M) (that is “elements” that typically show up in the passages that we know he has redacted, or edited; he has certain patterns in the kinds of changes he typically makes, phrases he typically likes, and so on ) then it is more likely that *that* material was not made up by him. Same with Luke.

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    toejam  September 25, 2013

    Not much has changed when you think about it… Even today people are STILL trying to write the definitive biography of Jesus! I can imagine an alien race in two thousand years time digging up 21st Century Earth finding all these ‘historical Jesus’ books, and them having the same problem as we have with the origin of the Christian gospels haha!! “Did Ehrman have Vermes as a source, or did he use Sanders? And what about this hypothetical ‘Schweitzer’ source?”

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    fultonmn  September 25, 2013

    Mind blown.

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    RonaldTaska  September 25, 2013

    The contradictions and discrepancies in the Gospels really shook my view of the world, but, now, maybe the better question is how in the world do the Gospels agree as much as they do?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      Yup, both questions have to be asked and answered, and the solution to one of the questions has to be related to the solution of the other!

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    Rosekeister  September 26, 2013

    Is part of the messiness due to proximity? By the last quarter of the 1st century, the Jerusalem community was pushed northeast into the transJordan area close to the Galileans and the Jewish Hellenists as well as the gentiles of Syria both east and west. This led to a mingling, contesting and merging of the several early Christianities and their theologies and Christologies. Was a relatively small area encompassing Galilee, the Decapolis and Syria the heart of the Christian communities and their earliest texts causing some of the texts to appear to be talking and reacting to each other?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      I’m not sure we actually *know* about specific migrations (from Jerusalem, e.g.) (yes, I do know what Eusebius etc. *say* about it); but in general, yes, proximity would have been a problem. And there’s a lot more going on, with communities scattered thorughout the empire….

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        Rosekeister  September 27, 2013

        I think I’ve been conflating ideas. I knew the flight to Pella is doubtful (problematic? legendary?) but still had it in mind that with the Roman invasions and the separation of the ways that the Judean Jewish Christians ended up in the transJordan then Syria.

        The number of early Christians still interests me. I’ve seen it argued that there was a single point of origin in the weeks and months after the crucifiction (Peter and some disciples) so perhaps 15-25 people intially. But I’ve seen it argued there were multiple points of origin (Galileans, Judeans, Jewish Hellenists, Samaritans and even gentiles) so maybe 150-250. I don’t know how single vs multiple points of origin can be decided although the multiple interpretations, theologies and Christologies has me thinking multiple points of origin within multiple groupings.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2013

          I wonder how, historically, the multiple points of origin could have happened, exactly….

          • Robertus
            Robertus  September 27, 2013

            If the Jesus movement had established even small groups in different locations prior to the crucifixion, then they might have interpreted later preaching of some resurrection appearances in diverse ways. I know you do not necessarily believe in much of a large-scale successful ministry of Jesus prior to his death, but even modest success in a few different areas could help ground a variety of different initial christolologies subsequent to the preaching by some of a post resurrection faith.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

            Interesting idea.

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            Rosekeister  September 27, 2013

            It depends on how much history is reflected by the gospels. Jesus’ NT life was that of a teaching/preaching circuit of Galilee and the Sea of Galilee with yearly trips through Samaria to Jerusalem (perhaps once or three times or even 5 or more times if you think there was a period of time leading up to the NT framework). So when he was crucified there would have been small groups in the area of Galilee that remembered Jesus as the good teacher in the Jewish Wisdom tradition. This is reflected in Q, James, the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas. In Jerusalem there would have been small groups (group?) that remembered Jesus as the True Prophet who was killed by the Romans. These also interpreted Jesus life in a traditional Jewish manner. Some of the Galileans, a small group of 3-5, thought of themselves as Jesus’ disciples and came to interpret his meaning as the Messiah as reflected by the Transfiguration scene. It is questionable whether they thought of themselves as disciples before his death or only after.

            Jesus’ family (James) came to Jerusalem where he seemed to emphasize their rigor in following the Law. At this point these groups all were interpreting Jesus as human with various exaltation theologies beginning. It is doubtful any of these groups thought Jesus’ body was resusitated, walked from the grave to teach again before ascending to heaven through the clouds.

            Hellenistic Jews in Syria were interpreting Jesus as fulfilling the Law starting a trajectory toward acceptance of gentiles. It is doubtful whether this actully began in Jerusalem and probably Acts has distant memories of Syrian Hellenist Christianity retrojected into Jerusalem. Physical resurection and divinity beliefs are gentile interpretations of Jewish exaultation beliefs. If there is any truth in the Pentecost traditions they are more likely to reflect Hellenist Jewish exautation beliefs meeting gentile pagan/mystery/emperor cult beliefs in Syria.

            Is this how it happened? In detail No, it is however a flexible interpretative framework of Christian origins meant to explain the multiple interpretations, theologies and Christologies. For the first century the Jews of Israel seemed to clearly interpret Jesus as human while the Hellenist Jews of Syria followed by the gentiles originated the divinity theories. In time the Jerusalem Jewish followers in Israel were scattered by Roman invasions and the gentile Christians grew to vastly outnumber the Jewish Christians because the gentiles in general vastly outnumbered the Jews.

            So how many original followers would there have been? 150? 300? How many followers could a 1st century Jewish circuit teacher with an apocalyptic bent have gathered?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

            I doubt if the number could have been in the hundreds….

          • Avatar
            Rosekeister  September 28, 2013

            To summarize, the multiple points of origin would have been from the multiple social groups Jesus would have been in contact with in Galilee, the Sea of Galilee area, Samaria and Judea. These groupings would include Galileans, Jewish Hellenists, even gentiles, Samaritans and Judeans. After his brutal death small groups of people from these social groupings would have interpreted his life and death consistent with their social setting and beliefs.

            The methodology is to track Jesus movements, identify his contacts, develop a timeline, interview and interrogate the contacts (in this case critically analyze the texts), and develop a flexible framework for interpreting the evidence (texts). Flexible is the keyword. Conservative scholarship has an inflexible framework (Acts) and evidence is made to fit this inflexible framework. The framework of interpretation has to be flexible as new evidence may prompt changes to it.

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    LP in PA  September 26, 2013

    I like the “mess” you’ve created! In my biblical training, I learned the “clean” view, which simplifies the situation. A messy view, however, seems to be much more likely, and a more accurate reflection of real life. Life is usually messy. Thanks for thinking out loud about this.

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    billgraham1961  September 26, 2013

    Looks pretty messy to me, but as a technical writer, I can understand the need for ongoing revision in one’s documentation. With each new iteration of software changes, my documentation has to change right along with it. In the First Century, the situation would have been far more fluid in some ways. If most of one’s information was oral tradition, for example, who is to say that the story one heard one day might not be contradicted by someone else the next day? Furthermore, I have to think that any manuscript was seen as an extremely precious resource. Consequently, access to that manuscript would have been severely limited and closely guarded.

    I can only speak for myself, but in the past I didn’t think about the kind of access people had to written accounts in that time. For example, there was no printing press. Consequently, every copy took tons of time to produce. You also point out that most people couldn’t read or write on those times. Therefore, the most frequent source had to have been oral tradition. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out one thing that has been potentially overlooked: iconography. While early icons and frescoes were less refined, they were very likely put to extensive use in teaching the gospels. I have to ask; therefore, if adequate research has been undertaken in the area of iconography to find out what may have been taught of the gospel. Perhaps iconography could lend significant aid to your research.

    Another area of potential research is hymnology, and I don’t just mean what we have come to know as “gospel hymns.” I’m talking about an aggressive pursuit of the allusions to hymnody in the New Testament and other sources about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve read your entries about such instances in Philippians, and they were interesting, but I’d like to think that we may find an ancient psalter or hymnal one day. When Colossians and Ephesians mentions psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, what does the author mean by spiritual songs? I’ve read all sorts of useless speculation about this term in the past, but I have seldom run across any serious research. Even musicologists have offered precious little on the meaning of a spiritual song. If we could find a spiritual song or perhaps more early hymn texts, we may also find out more about the original gospel message. Perhaps some of them would allude to passages in Mark, Matthew, Luke, John or other gospels we still haven’t discovered.

    Just some thoughts here as a result of reading your blog entry. As always, I find your perspective refreshing.

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    Wilusa  September 26, 2013

    Wow. Probably like most lay people, I’d never thought of this. When you spell it out, it seems obvious.

    One question: How many people in that first century were *interested enough* in the story of Jesus to be talking, let alone writing, about him?

    A more disturbing question: If beliefs and the content of written Gospels were in this much flux, does it make for less certainty that John the Baptist – supposedly a major influence on Jesus – was an apocalypticist? And that Jesus himself was?

    We can be sure *Paul* was, of course, because his actual writings have survived. But Paul’s entire body of beliefs was based on a “vision”…I suspect that today, he’d be diagnosed as having some kind of mental condition. (Schizophrenia? Mistaking an aspect of his own subconscious for a separate entity that was imparting knowledge to him, whatever the correct term for it is.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2013

      Good questions. I wish we *knew* how many Christians there were in, say, 80 CE/90CE/100 CE. But alas, it’s largely guess work. As to specific historical conclusions: that’s why we consider “independent attestation” among the few sources that do survive. With the various criteria we have, I think we can say with some certainty that both John and Jesus were apocalypticiest.

  15. Robertus
    Robertus  September 26, 2013

    This messier view limits the applicability of the criterion of multiple independent attestation.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2013

      I’m not sure if it does or not. If the sources are truly *independent*, it would help that htere were so many of them.

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    davidkelly  September 27, 2013

    Then could “Q” just have been a different version of Mark’s gospel? Did the gospel writers produce a manuscript like you would write a book, starting with several drafts before the finished product? Could any of the gospels be a draft, and not the final version, which may have been lost?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2013

      Well, Q is almost all sayings, so it doesn’t appear to be related to Mark.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  September 27, 2013

        I’m only speaking of known, identifiable sources (even accepting Q, as most do, which is nonetheless a secondary hypothesis). The more we recognize potential interdependence of these known sources and/or their pre & post traditions, the less certain it is that any appeal can be made to truly independent attestation. Right?

      • Robertus
        Robertus  September 27, 2013

        There are some Q-Mark overlaps, which does indicate some prior similar traditions being known to both. This is if one rejects dependence of one upon the other, as is nonetheless advocated by some, eg, Lambrecht, Fledderman, etc.

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    donmax  September 27, 2013

    Bottom line for me is the importance of canonization. That’s what marks the beginning of Romanized Christianity. The *gospels* are just part of the official *story*; and both are a mix of fiction and history.

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    Pat Ferguson  September 27, 2013

    I hypothesize a third scenario of yet another incident in which a scribe made a manuscript say what he wanted it to say; to wit: perhaps the scribe of Mark in codex D/Bezae, in a moment of ecstasy-induced personal anger at the leper–or (more likely) under threat of excommunication made by one or more of his superiors–turned a blinded eye to what was written in his available copies of Matt., Luke, and P Eg 2, or he turned a deafened ear to the traditional oral stories he had heard, and altered the text at Mark 1:14 to reflect what he was thinking/feeling at that moment?

    On second thought I think I’ll go with a hypothesis expressed by Prof. Metzger: “It is possible that the reading ὀργισθεις … arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic (compare Syriac ethraham, “he had pity,” with ethra’em, “he was enraged”; see TCGNT 2nd 65.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

      Yes, I don’t buy that argument from Metzger. The change was made by Greek-speaking scribes writing Greek; they almost certainly didn’t even *know* Aramaic.

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    James Dowden  September 29, 2013

    I wonder what you make of another argument for two editions of Luke:

    In Mark 6.3-4 (part of the Rejection at Nazareth pericope), the challenge “Is this not the carpenter?” etc is posed, to which Jesus responds “A prophet is not without honor” etc. (Matthew 13.55-57 is essentially the same apart from removing the suggestion that Jesus indulged in manual labor.)

    Luke’s parallel (4.22-24) expands Jesus’ answer, prefixing it with “Physician, heal yourself” etc, including rather tellingly “what we have heard you did at Capernaum”. Of course, the issue is that Capernaum hasn’t been reached in Luke’s present order.

    So it looks an awful lot like a textual expansion by one author/redactor, followed by a re-ordering by another (maybe in an attempt to smooth out the geographical progression from Jesus’ home to Jerusalem?).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      It’s normally understood that the expansion and re-ordering (creating a huge problem in the narrative!) were done by one redactor. Why does there need to be two?

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    Adam0685  October 9, 2013

    Do you plan on reading The Oral Gospel Tradition by James D.G. Dunn, which was just published last week.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

      I probably will, since I want to write on this topic myself, and I have a sneaking suspicion that my views will be different!

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