I continue here with more summaries of my lectures for my new eight-lecture online course, “The Unknown Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” Again, 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 Three: What Are the Gospels?
This lecture continues the story by explaining how scholarship developed with the earth-shattering book of David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1834), which claimed that both the traditional Christian supernatural understandings of the Gospels and the Enlightenment opposition to “miracle” (found for example in the work of Paulus) completely misunderstood the Gospels. Strauss’s controversial claim was that these texts were not meant to present history as it happened but “myths.”
When Strauss used that term he did not mean that Jesus “did not exist” or, even more surprising, that the Gospels were “not true.” Completely on the contrary: Jesus did exist and the Gospel stories, for Strauss, are “true.” But they are not historical. The stories proclaim “truths” about Jesus, even though they didn’t happen.
But how can you have a “true” story that didn’t happen? Scholars today rarely use the term “myths” for the Gospels, but they do agree with Strauss that there are numerous stories about Jesus in the Gospels that contain non-historical information or that simply did not happen at all. Nearly all the scholars who have held these views over they years have been committed Christians. But they found, and still find, the evidence overwhelming.
I devote the second part of the lecture to illustrating this point through simply two examples. The accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew and the book of Acts simply cannot be reconciled with each other. And none of the accounts of Jesus’ trial, where Pilate releases the criminal Barabbas, is historically plausible. Either the details or the entire accounts are legendary, not historical. But does that mean we can dismiss them? I argue that this would be far too hasty for deep and profound accounts such as these – and I explain why.
Lecture Four: Before the Gospels–Oral Traditions and the Problems of Memory
In this lecture I begin to explain why the Gospels are what they are, a combination of historically reliable material and legend. I begin by showing why historical scholars have long argued that the Gospels were neither written by eyewitnesses nor, for the most part, based on eyewitnesses. I also explore the question – so frequently overlooked by apologists who want to stress the accuracy of the Gospels – of whether eyewitness testimony provides any guarantee (or even presumption) of accuracy.
For over a century, historical scholars have maintained that the Gospels are based on oral traditions about Jesus that had been in circulation for decades before the Gospel writers produced their accounts. I show why this is almost certainly the case, and then move to the all-important question: what do we know about oral tradition?
New Testament scholars have frequently claimed, without citing evidence (or actually even looking for any), that people as a rule have very good memories, that people living in oral cultures tend to have even better memories than those of us in literary cultures, and that oral cultures take special care to make sure their traditions were not changed in the process of passing them on. But experts in the fields of psychology and anthropology have long studied this issue and show that these views in fact are simply not true. In the rest of this lecture I discuss their reasons/evidence for thinking so.
This has huge implications for the Gospels. If the stories about Jesus were exaggerated, shaped, altered, and even invented in the processes of telling and retelling, then the Gospel writers were not writing data-driven biographies but were telling stories that might pack meaning but are not (Always? Usually? Sometimes?) accounts of what actually happened. As it turns out, this makes perfect sense when the Gospels stories themselves are intensely studied. It explains why there are so many variant accounts, exaggerations, and implausibilities. A historical approach to the Gospels has to take all these factors into account.
Lecture Five: The Written Sources and Why They Matter
In this lecture I move from the question of the oral sources behind the Gospels to the written sources. Scholar have long held that there must be some kind of literary relationship among Matthew, Mark, and Luke in particular. They tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and even in the same words. Someone is copying someone. But who?
I explain why scholars widely solve this “Synoptic Problem” by arguing that Mark was copied (and changed) by Matthew and Luke, who both also had another no-longer existing source (Q) for many of their sayings, and separate sources (M and L) for accounts they each alone narrate. Many scholars continue to think that John had his own written sources (his account is very different from the others), though now there is a scholarly tendency to think he knew the other three.
I go on to explain why this discussion of “who used whom” is important, for both historical and literary reasons. Historically, if an author changed an account he was copying to create one that was flat-out at odds with the other, they both can’t be historically accurate. But what if the copyist’s changes made his account different but not actually contradictory? I show why the question creates difficulties for interpreters by pointing to specific examples (E.g.: When in his ministry did Jesus cleanse the temple? How many women were at Jesus’ empty tomb?). I go from there to consider accounts that appear to be completely at odds with each other, including some that really matter – for example, the in-places-irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
I end this lecture by stressing a point frequently overlooked by (some) scholars and (many) lay-readers: the point of contradictions is not simply to show that the Gospels aren’t historically accurate in places. There is actually a major positive payoff for recognizing the differences. If two accounts differ, then they are teaching different things. If you want to understand what each account is trying to teach, you have to acknowledge the differences; otherwise you assume they are teaching they same thing and you are very much missing the point.
This kind of historical scholarship, therefore – ironically in the eyes of some — is essential for the proper understanding of the Gospels and their individual messages.