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New Boxes: Oral traditions and the Dates of the Gospels

For the sixth edition of my New Testament textbook I have written twelve new “boxes.”   These are side-line discussions of interesting and relevant (if a bit tangential) issues of some importance for various aspects of the study of the New Testament.   I will post several of these, including these two here.  If these generate any questions, let me know, and I can follow up on them.

The two are about the Gospels: the first has to do with the ongoing nature of oral traditions (which did not stop with the writing of the Gospels!) and the second with how scholars have determined the dates of the Gospels.

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Box 5.2  Another Glimpse Into the Past

The Church Father Papias and the Ongoing Oral Tradition 

Oral traditions about Jesus did not cease to circulate as soon as the Gospels were written.  On the contrary, we have solid evidence that the traditions continued to thrive for a very long time indeed.  Hard evidence comes in the writings of a second-century Christian named Papias, the author of a five-volume work called “The Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord” written sometime between 120-40 CE.  The book no longer survives, except as it is occasionally quoted by later church writers.  In one of our surviving quotations, it is clear that Papias loved hearing oral accounts about Jesus from people who were expected to know the truth — more than reading books about him.   Notice the final line of this passage: rather than being interested in Gospels, Papias preferred orally-delivered reports from people who had been companions of the “elders,” who, in turn, had known the apostles.   Here is what he says:

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    richard  October 29, 2014

    “Otherwise the reader would be left hanging, not knowing if Jesus was a true prophet or not”

    In other words mark had to leave hints in his gospel for his readers to easily link to the temple destruct Otherwise the reader would be left hanging, not knowing if Jesus was a true prophet or not

  2. Avatar
    richard  October 29, 2014

    ” Matthew is even more explicit: here Jesus tells a parable in which God is portrayed as burning the city and killing its inhabitants (22:8). Luke has similar passages (e.g., 21:24).”

    Dr ehrman, do you think that the author of Matthew thought that god actualized the parable?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      Yes, writing after the fact that’s how he imagines it.

  3. Avatar
    steffi  October 29, 2014

    Bart.

    At some stage would you mind doing a more detailed post(s) on the dating of the Gospels, particularly the use by scholars of the references to the destruction of the temple? I’m not sure that the explanation you have given-“Obviously, in order to show that Jesus knew what he was talking about, an author would want to write about these predictions only after they had been fulfilled.”- is sufficiently strong to counter the claims that, say, Mark could have been written long before the war, particularly in light of the fact that most scholars believe that Jesus *did*, in fact, make some such prediction.

    Also, I find it strange that the destruction of the temple didn’t cause serious problems for those Christians who had an Apocalyptic outlook; surely such an event would have been thought by them to have been catalyst for God’s making some decisive intervention? It’s strange that Mark doesn’t make more out of it, no?

    Regards.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      I’m not sure that I have a lot more to say at this point, but I’m planning on coming up with a lengthier explanation.

      My sense is that a lot of Christians *did* have a problem with the fact that the end did not come after 70 CE.

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  October 31, 2014

    As I work on the second edition of my book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy by Steefen, I’m addressing the notion that Josephus continues to speak about Jesus in the passage after the Testimonium Flavianum (TF). When Josephus selected the name Decius Mundus, he references History of Rome Book 8 by Livy, 340 B.C.: Decius Mus says, “We have need of Heaven’s help … Come therefore, state pontiff of the Roman People, dictate the words that I may devote myself to save the legions. [Atonement]” Jesus didn’t save legions, he saved the world (mundus); hence, Decius Mundus in the passage after the TF.

    Can we be sure that Jesus was the author of the theory of Atonement? Was the theory of Atonement the result of Jesus’ agonizing prayer to have the cup taken from him?

    Unless you have a better answer, Atonement is a Roman idea that goes back to 340 B.C., making the gospels and the New Testament even more pro-Roman.

    You often speak of other Gospels, what other gospels date from 70-100 C.E. and do they have “this is my body and blood, eat and drink” marking Atonement? I don’t recall the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas having a last supper theory of atonement segment.

    More important, any evidence Atonement part of the Jerusalem Church? (I would think not given the Kosher rules against consuming blood.) That leaves what Rev. Marcum at Highland Park UMC told us: Christianity grew due to two waves going outside of Jerusalem: the Pentacost wave, 5 weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and the killing of Stephen which sent another wave outside of Jerusalem to spread Christianity (and the reason why so often Paul finds pre-existing Christian communities).

    Any evidence it was part of the Gentile Church?

    Then for the cannibalistic overtones of Atonement, that cannot be pre-Destruction of the Temple. Jesus becomes the sacrifice only after the Temple is destroyed, not before. The Jerusalem Church was observant. I’d bet the year following Jesus’ Lord Supper, they had their sacrifice at the Temple where they were gathering on a regular basis.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  October 31, 2014

    Not too long ago in this blog, your position was that the Gospel of John was not written or authored by John. The possibility presented: John was too old to write his gospel in a second language, Greek, when it was written, so, he could have authored it, delegating the writing and some translation to a secretary.

    At the time, you didn’t reference your 2012 thread, “Ancient Secretaries, Part One.”

    I just now came across this: “An amanuensis (/əˌmænjuːˈɛnsɪs/) is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter’s authority.”

    You present four types of secretaries. I’m wondering if all four types would be an amanuensis.

    Second, were any of these secretaries translators, as well. (Even a Paul or a Josephus, at some point, could have used some editorial support with translation.) Do you mention translators in Misquoting Jesus when the oral tradition was transferred to paper? (There probably were two oral traditions–Church of James and the oral tradition of the Hellenists who spread from Palestine in two waves: Pentacost and Martyrdom of Stephen.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2014

      Yes, amanuensis is just a fancy name for secretary. I don’t know of any evidence that secretaries were used as translators.

  6. Avatar
    Luke9733  November 3, 2014

    I know that most scholars think that the names on the Gospels were not the true names of actual authors. People just started saying that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote these and that’s how the tradition started.

    I can see why someone would want to say that John or Matthew wrote something, as they were both disciples (even though Matthew was a tax collector beforehand). But how do historians explain why someone would want a Gospel to have been written by Mark or Luke, who are so obscure that they’re only mentioned in a few brief passages, and in those passages, next to nothing is actually said about them? Do historians have an explanation for why the earliest Christians would have started saying that they were the ones who wrote those books, instead of picking the names of more prominent figures?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2014

      Great question. Maybe I’ll post on it down the line!

  7. Avatar
    asjsdpjk  November 4, 2014

    What “order” would you say the oral witness received by Papias was? I mean 2nd hand, 3rd hand, 4th hand ….

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2014

      Well, he knew people who were companions of the elders who knew the apostles. So I guess that means he’s getting it third hand and we’re getting it fourth hand.

  8. Avatar
    Adam0685  November 5, 2014

    Gary Habermas argues, in relation to eyewitness accounts of the gospel:

    “The critics also acknowledge that Paul had his conversion experience somewhere between one and three years after Jesus’ death, Habermas pointed out, and in Galatians, Paul noted that he went to Jerusalem three years after that. Fourteen years later, Paul recounts in Galatians 2, he returned to Jerusalem and met with three people who knew Jesus best — James, John and Peter.

    Since Ehrman does not accept the traditional authorship of the four Gospels, he wrote that this meeting was the closest eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus available, Habermas explained.

    Paraphrasing Galatians 2:2, Habermas said it was at that second Jerusalem meeting that Paul compared what he had been preaching with what the other apostles had been preaching and they decided, “we’re all on the same page.”

    This is important, Habermas explained, because it means it dates the Gospel message to only one or two years after Jesus died on the cross. In other words, if James, John, Peter and Paul are all on the same page in terms of the Gospel they are preaching, Paul was converted one to three years after the death of Jesus, and James, John and Peter began preaching that same Gospel even earlier than Paul, then that Gospel was preached within one to two years after the Cross, even by the evidence that the critics will acknowledge. And indeed, Habermas said, Ehrman and other critics have recognized this.”

    http://www.christianpost.com/news/a-generation-of-skeptics-are-open-to-the-resurrection-gary-habermas-says-127906/

    What are your brief thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2014

      Yes, that’s the position I stake out in How Jesus Became God. It’s the conclusions one *draws* from this that makes Habermas and me so very, very different.

  9. Avatar
    AGK527  December 12, 2014

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    You wrote in your blog post:

    “So even if we assume that Jesus did predict such things, the fact that they are written so confidently by later authors suggests that they did so after the events – that is, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE.”

    I’ve seen apologists argue that the fact the destruction of the temple is mentioned in the gospel, but no followup on whether or not it actually happened, is evidence that Mark must have been written BEFORE 70 CE. Otherwise, the gospel writer would have made a mention of the fact that “today as I am writing there is no temple.”

    Obviously these are not historians or experts in dating that are making these arguments, but why wouldn’t there be a followup if the author knew the temple was actually destroyed? In 1 Chronicles 5:26 and other Old Testament verses, the authors say things like “…where they remain to this day.” Why wasn’t there a verse in Mark talking about how the temple no longer remains “to this day”?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2014

      That’s a strange argument that the apologists made. Mark NEVER says something like that about *anything*. Why would he say it about the temple in particular? He doesn’t give “followup”.

  10. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 23, 2016

    Bart, if you are familiar with John A.T. Robinson’s argument for early dating in Redating the New Testament, can you discuss why you reject it? If not, can you point to me anybody who has responded to it?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      The big problem everyone has had with it is that passages like Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21 seem to presuppose the destruction of the Temple.

  11. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 23, 2016

    Another question for Bart. Isn’t there potential that the dating basis can get to be circular? E.g., the early authors who reference the gospels, do we know their dates because they dated their letters, or is their dating in any way based on being later than the gospels?

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