This will be my final post providing summaries of my lectures for my new eight-lecture online course, “The Unknown Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” As I’ve indicated before, this course is not connected directly with the blog: it is a separate endeavor run off my personal website for the Bart Ehrman Professional Services. You can see it here. https://www.bartehrman.com/courses/.
I am posting about the lectures simply because I know a number of blog members would be interested. If you are, check it out. If you’re not, don’t!
Lecture Six: Embracing the Differences
In this lecture I build on the conclusions I have drawn so far in order to show why recognizing the differences among the Gospels is actually the key to understanding them. This kind of scholarship that finds alterations and discrepancies is not necessarily negative. It has extremely important positive effects, allowing the reader to see the point each author is trying to make.
I illustrate the point by discussing three kinds of differences. First, some differences significantly heighten an emphasis of a story, from one telling to another. To demonstrate how this works I look at the portrayal of Pontius Pilate in all four Gospels, to show that as time goes on, he is portrayed as more and more innocent in the condemnation of Jesus. This heightened exoneration of Pilate serves a clear literary function: it shows who is really at fault for the death of Jesus. (No surprise: it’s the Jews…)
Second, some differences are key for understanding the distinctive (i.e. different) theological perspective of different Gospels. I show this by two sets of examples. First, I show how each of the four Gospels has different accounts of how Jesus came into the world with radically different implications for understanding not only where he came from but also for who he actually is. Second, I show how the Synoptic Gospels on one side and John on the other portray Jesus’ preaching in radically different ways. Only in John does Jesus openly declare himself to be a divine being, equal with God; realizing this difference is fundamental for understanding the views of Jesus advocated by all four Gospels.
Finally, some differences radically alter the understanding of the meaning of an event. this I illustrate by contrasting the portrayal of Jesus on his way to crucifixion in Mark and in Luke, showing that not only are they at odds, but also that each portrayal is saying something of immense importance to the author about how it is Jesus’ followers should encounter and think about their own sufferings for the faith. This point is completely lost when the accounts are simply reconciled with each other.
Lecture Seven: How Scribes Changed the Gospels
In this lecture I take up the intriguing question of whether we actually have the “original” Gospels – that is, whether the words we read are those that the authors themselves wrote. The question is complicated by the fact that our oldest copies are many years – in most cases, many centuries – after the originals were first put in circulation. This does not make the Gospels different from other ancient writings, but exactly like them. As is true of all literature from antiquity, the four Gospels were copied and recopied by scribes time and time again over the decades. And scribes make mistakes.
In the lecture I discuss the surviving manuscripts (i.e., hand-written copies) of the Gospels: their dates, the different kinds, and different qualities. Many people today are surprised to learn just how many changes scribes made over the years, either accidentally or on purpose: hundreds of thousands of changes. On the positive side, the vast majority of these changes were simple mistakes that have almost no bearing on what the texts mean (e.g., misspelled words!).
Some changes, however, are highly significant, affecting how a verse, a passage, or an entire book is to be understood. Even more problematic, in many of these cases scholars cannot agree on what the original text actually said. At the end of the lecture I discuss four examples out of many, involving such things as Jesus’ (angry?) personality, the reality of his suffering, and his identity (or not) as “the unique God.”
Lecture Eight: Why These Four Gospels? How We Got the New Testament
I conclude the course by pursuing one of the most interesting issues of all: why do we have these four Gospels in the New Testament, and not others? This is the question of the “canon” of Scripture. Why did Christians want or need a collection of sacred writings? Who made the decisions about what to include and what to exclude? On what grounds? And when?
Contrary to what most people think, the debates about which books should be included in the New Testament lasted for centuries. There were, however, fewer debates about the Gospels than most of the other parts of the New Testament. Within the “orthodox” Christian tradition, already by the end of the second century there was wide agreed that these four accounts of Jesus life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection were “the” authoritative ones.
Even so, this was about a century after the books had been put into circulation. In this lecture I discuss why it didn’t happen sooner and explain what we know about the process. In particular I deal with the question of how and why these four books came to be named. They were originally circulated anonymously, and it is not until around 180 CE or so that they came to be called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That is both interesting and important: if they had not been ascribed to apostles, they would not have been acceptable as writings of Scripture.
Why were the books first circulated anonymously? Why didn’t the authors – whoever they were – name themselves? Why did it take so long for names to be attached to them? And why were other books that were written (explicitly) in the names of apostles *not* accepted by the broader Christian community (Gospels of Thomas, James, Peter, and so on)?