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More on the Criterion of Independent Attestation


Re. multiple attestation: would you elaborate on how these sources are truly independent. I’ve read comments by mythicists and others that state that all the sources actually go back to one source and that any differences in the gospel accounts can be accounted for by the theological views or the ‘agenda’ of the particular author, e.g. Matt 5:17 or Mark 3:21 (and, of course, accounted for by simple miscommunications thru’ generations).

Also, please forgive me for asking a stupid question….are there any accounts found in the gospels that pass all three criteria but which you don’t think actually happened?


Yes, once you dig deeper into the question of “independent attestation,” the trickier it gets.  Technically, the term refers to sources that have not used one another for their accounts.  And so, for example, whoever wrote Mark did not have access to Q, and Q did not have access to Mark; M did not have access to John’s Signs Source, and vice versa; Paul did not know Matthew and vice versa; etc.   The matter gets tricky for various reasons.  For one thing, we are dealing with a matter of probability, not certainty.  There are scholars who would argue that Mark did indeed know Q (highly unlikely, in my vew), or that John knew the Synoptics (possible, but still unlikely, in my view); etc.

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The Resurrection as a Key to Early Understandings of Jesus
Jesus and the Historical Criteria



  1. Avatar
    hwl  October 1, 2012

    How do we know that Paul did not know Matthew and vice versa? The former advocated a “lawless” gospel while the latter was stringent on law observance. On this point, they are diametrically opposed. But surely this doesn’t mean they are unaware of each other’s writings – after all, there were various competing Christian groups in the 1st century, and there is no reason why one group would take the effort to refute everybody else they disagreed with.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2012

      Well, it’s a probability judgment. Paul wouldn’t have known Matthew, because it wasn’t written yet. And so the question is whether Matthew knew Paul. The only way to argue that he did is to look to see if there is any hint of Paul in Matthew — or better yet, verbatim agreements that would show that he did. Not much there to suggest that. There’s nothing weird about them being independent, in a world where there was no mass communication.

  2. Avatar
    hwl  October 1, 2012

    Are the criteria of authenticity commonly applied in historical Jesus studies used in other fields of ancient history?
    On one hand, it makes perfect sense that multiple attestation is no guarantee of authenticity as the early church could have come up with a certain belief about Jesus’ words or deeds fairly early on. On the other, raising doubts about this and many other criteria could lead one to being unnecessarily skeptical about too many details of the gospel accounts. Are there well defined systematic criteria historians of ancient history apply to say writings of Josephus and of the 1st century Roman historians, to evaluate historicity of their accounts? It seems most readers of Josephus presuppose most of his accounts are historical (allowing for embellishment & biases) unless there are good reasons to believe otherwise. Why is this type of presupposition unsatisfactory for historical Jesus studies?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2012

      Yes, they may not call the criteria the same things, but these are basically what historians do. Yes, it’s fair to say that a source can be seen as reliable unless there are good reasons to believe otherwise. And with the Gospels, there are very good reasons indeed for believing otherwise! (So too, to some extent, Josephus, as there are tensions between what he says in Antiquities and in Jewish War about the same topic.)

  3. Avatar
    lbehrendt  October 1, 2012

    I’ve heard you say that the doctrine of independent attestation is like a court proceeding: if you’re trying to establish fact “X”, it helps to have as many independent witnesses to “X” as possible. So if Mark and Matthew both independently testify to “X”, that strengthens the case for “X”. But if Matthew’s testimony is based on having learned “X” from Mark, then you’ve only got one witness.

    But doesn’t it mean something that Matthew followed Mark? Going back to our court proceeding analogy, can we put Matthew in the position of a judge, and derive something from the fact that Matthew evidently believed Mark’s testimony concerning “X”? I’m not a trial lawyer, but in some cases multiple witnesses outside of court are not as valuable as a single witness who has been cross-examined and found truthful by a finder of fact.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2012

      Yes, I think if Matthew took over Mark, he certainly had reasons for doing so. But those reasons may not have been (actually, I would argue they certainly were not) because after critical evaluation he decided that Mark was historically accurate. Mark’s story dovetailed with the story Matthew wanted to tell, in lots of places, so he kept Mark’s account. I wish we *could* cross-examine him!

  4. Avatar
    donmax  October 2, 2012

    When it comes to history, the farther back we go, the less clear things get. This is especially true of religious icons like Jesus. (We call him “Jesus,” but that was not his real name and Christ is more like an after-the-fact title than a legitimate appellation.) Just talking about him as we do reinforces ongoing misperceptions of someone who never existed quite like other historical/mythical celebrities once did. If he lived at all, his reality comes to us from the reservoir of our own creativity shaped by today’s cultural conditioning and the primitive notions of former generations.

    Facts are come hard to come by, no matter what criterion we prefer to use. Of course, it’s fun to speculate, but the remote past is not subject certainty or to probabilities. That’s for scientists, bookmakers and accountants. Using multiple criteria sounds better than having just one, but it’s still a lot like handicapping horses without ever finding out who won.

    I think we should only talk about Jesus as the main character of the Gospels (canonized or not), in the context of religious literature, not history.


  5. Jesse80025
    Jesse80025  October 26, 2012

    Bart, I was wondering if you have talked about authorship anywhere on your blog? I’ve read what you wrote about the traditionally attributed authors in forged but was wondering if you’ve addressed the claim of Apologists that Papias was in a position to know what the disciples did or didn’t write since he was, supposedly, a “hearer” of John. I’ve heard a lot of argumentation based on the character of Papias, who seems to be a HUGE focal point for the apostolic authorship tradition. Anything you have said on this matter, especially Papias, could interest me greatly! Thanks!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      I haven’t talked about this on the blog, but I deal with it in several of my books, including Forged, and Jesus Interrupted. The short story is that when Papias describes Matthew’s Gospel, he is almost certainly not referring to our Matthew (from what he says about it). And if he wasn’t talking about our Matthew, there is little reason to think he is talking about our Mark. He doesn’t mention Luke and John. There’s a lot more to be said — maybe I *will* post on it!

      • Jesse80025
        Jesse80025  October 28, 2012

        That’s great! Thanks! What do you think about Papias being a “hearer” of John. I’ve done a little research into it but I’m wondering what the nature and extent of their relationship was.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 28, 2012

          Papias does not claim to have heard John the disciple; I deal with all of this a bit in my book Forged.

          • Jesse80025
            Jesse80025  October 29, 2012

            Whoa! I had heard that claim that Papias was a “hearer” of John so much I was sure there had to be some truth to it! Thanks!

  6. Avatar
    Zboilen  February 22, 2017

    Hi Bart, are there any books you would recommend that talk specifically about the criteria of independent attestation (as it relates to the historical Jesus) or the sources for the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2017

      I explain it at greater length in my book Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium. But if you want a really full treatment (including all the sources, etc.), see John Meier, vol. 1 of A marginal Jew

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