My new online course focusing on what scholars know about the four Gospels will soon be available on my personal website.  Neither the course nor the website is part of the blog, but I am announcing it here because I know a number of blog members would be interested.  The course is based on a set of remote lectures that some of you attended, and includes additional instructional materials. If you did not come but would like to know more about it, you can check it out here:  It consists of eight thirty-minute (or so) lectures, with the title:  “The Unknown Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”  (I call them “unknown” because most people don’t know what scholars say about them.)

I’m envisioning the course as part of a long series covering the entire Bible, both Hebrew Bible and New Testament, called “How Scholars Read the Bible.” The series as a whole will be devoted to showing what historical scholars argue, believe, think, and think they know about the Bible, with some attention paid to their reasons for thinking so (some people know what scholars have to say but often don’t know why).  In a sense, the various courses I’m doing for it are further attempts to do what I do on the blog: provide scholarly information to lay readers/listeners in terms they find completely accessible and interesting.

My first course in the series was a six-lecture introduction to the Book of Genesis, and my current plan is to alternate courses between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  I also produced a one-lecture course – this one was available free of charge to anyone who wants it – on the question “Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Write Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (another title I rather like); you can find that one here:

The newer, more in-depth course on “The Unknown Gospels” digs into other important issues connected with the four Gospels, crucial for understanding them and yet widely unknown.  Among the questions I deal with are:

  • How have scholars studied and come to understand these texts over the centuries?
  • What has led them to the views they have?
  • When were the books actually written (decades after Jesus’ life)?
  • What sources of information did their authors have (largely oral but some written)?
  • How consistent are they with one another in both detail and overall portrayal of Jesus? And just how significant are the differences among them?
  • How do the inconsistencies among the Gospels actually help us to understand each one of them better?
  • How reliable are they for knowing what Jesus really said and did?
  • How did scribes who copied them change their texts?
  • Why did we get these four Gospels, and not others? Who decided?  On what grounds?  And when?
  • And so on….

Later in the series I will..

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…have multiple lectures on each of the Gospels separately, in order to show how to understand them as distinct portrayals of Jesus.  These will be courses on the actual interpretation of each of the books on its own terms (without assuming that one Gospel is saying the same as any other).  This current course provides the oh-so-necessary information of the four books as a whole.  What ARE these writings?  And how can/should they be studied?

In this post and the next two I’ll be summarizing what I cover in each of the eight lectures.  These are the issues that I should think anyone would need to know about to have an informed understanding of the Gospels.


Lecture One: The Unknown Gospels: A Bird’s Eye View

After introducing the major topics of the course, in this lecture begin by summarizing the narratives of the four Gospels taken as a whole.  Throughout the course I will be dealing to a great extent with how they differ from one another — so much so that they can not be read as a single book but as four distinct and different books.  Even so, the four narratives share a number of common features and perspectives, and in order to understand the distinctive message of each one it is important to recognize what they have in common.

These books are the basis of Christian faith in Jesus and for understanding historically what he actually said and did.  But they are even more than that.  They are important narratives from the earliest Christian times, which can be studied like other ancient texts by being situated in their own historical contexts and read like other writings from the period.  When we take a historical approach to the Gospels, a number of major critical issues emerge that need to be addressed.  The views of scholars on many of these issues are not widely known to the reading public.

The rest of this lecture summarizes some of those problems:  Who wrote these books? When did they write them? What sources did they use? Why are there so many differences among them?  How do we explain accounts (apart from miracles) that are simply not plausible?  And do contradictions and historical errors necessarily compromise the value of the Gospels and their importance?  (Spoiler alert:  NO! They actually help us understand the Gospels better.)

Lecture Two: The Rise of Historical Scholarship

This lecture explains when, why, and how scholars started interpreting the Gospels from a historical perspective rather than a theological or religious perspective guided by faith.   Almost all the early historical scholars were indeed committed Christians; but they realized that the Gospels present historical difficulties and they were not afraid to understand what they were and figure out how to solve them.

The lecture shows how historical problems with the Gospels were recognized already by some Christian scholars of the second and third centuries.  Early intellectual heavy-weights such as Tatian and Origen realized there were contradictions between the Gospel accounts and devised ways of dealing with them.  After that, throughout most of the Middle Ages these problems were by and large glossed over, but a big change occurred with the Reformation, starting with Martin Luther.

The major turning point, however, occurred in the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth, as scholars began to realize that the ancient biblical authors did not have modern (scientific) understandings about how the world and wrote their accounts of Jesus from their own theologically oriented perspective.  Rationalists at the time such as Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Heinrich Paulson proposed entirely new, revolutionary, and highly controversial ways of interpreting the Gospel accounts and the historical life of Jesus himself.