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Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Five years ago today I received and answered this question on the blog.  I thought it would make a nice break from my current discussion of my change of faith, a topic to which I'll return tomorrow.  For now, here's a blast from the past.   *********************************************************************** QUESTION One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus' life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus' life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness. RESPONSE It’s a very [...]

Metzger and the Squirrel Part 2: Another Blast from the Past

I’ve decided that I can’t do just one Blast from the Past this week, since the one I chose was a two-part post, and I can’t leave anyone hanging.  Here is the all important (and in some ways more interesting) part two of my Metzger and the squirrel story, from exactly four years ago. **************************************************************** As I indicated on my previous post, for years friends of mine were eager for me to find out whether the story about Metzger and the squirrel really happened. They wanted me just to ask Metzger. But there were problems with that. Among other things, if it had happened, he almost certainly wouldn’t remember, since it would have simply been something that happened with no significance to him – only to the one who thought it was very odd that Metzger would happen to know what the Greek word for squirrel was and that he would volunteer it at that rather inauspicious moment. Moreover, there were aspects of the story that did not “ring true.” Metzger was not heartless toward [...]

By |2020-05-11T13:31:31-04:00July 23rd, 2016|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|25 Comments

Bruce Metzger and the Squirrel: A Blast from the Past

A Blast From the Past: four years ago I posted the following, an amusing anecdate about my mentor in graduate school (and beyond) the illustrious New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger. *************************************************************************** As with all great men, Metzger was widely talked about among those who knew and revered him. There were lots of stories told about Metzger at Princeton Seminary. Someone should probably collect and publish them. I was especially interested in the stories, since I came to Princeton in order to study with him. Most of the stories were meant to be funny, and we always wondered which, if any of them, were “true” (in the sense that they really happened). Far and away the most commonly told and best known story was the one I heard when I first arrived at the seminary in 1978. It is the story of Metzger and the Squirrel. FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a Member. If you don't belong yet, JOIN!! Before telling the story and explicating it a bit, I need to [...]

By |2020-05-11T13:29:37-04:00July 21st, 2016|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|21 Comments

On the Accuracy of Oral Traditions

I have announced on the blog that my new book, Jesus Before the Gospels, will be available March 1.  The book is about how the stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth for several decades before being written, and about how modern studies of both memory and oral cultures can help us understand what probably happened to the traditions as they circulated orally from one person to another over all those years. In reaction to a previous post on the topic, a reader made the following interesting comment:   COMMENT: The Iliad [of Homer] exists today in its modern form because of oral tradition.  We can be pretty sure that the story did not happen as it’s told to us, even if you leave out the part about kibbitzing gods (and we can be pretty sure that it wasn’t originally meant to be a literal recounting of the Trojan War, literalism never being the mission statement of poetry).  But inspired by it, Schliemann did go out and find Troy. Which we wouldn’t [...]

What Can We Know about the Life of Jesus?

QUESTION:   You have stated in your various works that there are some things that we can accept as likely historically true concerning Jesus’ life; his origin in Galilee, his association with John the Baptizer, his crucifixion, etc.  For the rest of the episodes in Jesus’ life do we have to content ourselves with contemplation of what this or that gospel tells us about its author and community? Should we just “get over” this desire to know what really happened two thousand years ago?   RESPONSE:   Yes, this is a very important question.  Of paramount importance!  Here is a sample of how I deal with it in my just-finished-and-ready-to-send-to-my-readers book.  This is from Chapter 5, “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  This is the chapter where I discuss what anthropologists have told us about oral cultures and the way they preserve their traditions; it’s a crucial chapter since so many people seem to think that in oral cultures people have better memories that we do, and that they make sure not to change traditions that [...]

By |2020-04-03T13:44:42-04:00May 8th, 2015|Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|60 Comments

My Memory Book, chs. 1-2

So, as I mentioned in the previous post, I did not start writing my current book until I had a very full outline already in place.  With a massive outline that covers everything you want to say, the book pretty much writes itself.   Well, that’s what I tell people.  It’s not true, of course; but I have found that once all the hard work of research and outlining is finished, the writing – just for me, of course – is the very, very different chore of putting into clear and compelling words the ideas that I already know that I want to express.  It’s a completely different kind of task. I won’t reproduce here the outline of my book (for which you should be glad since, as I mentioned, it’s 42 pages long….).  But I will say something about the six main chapters to give you an idea of how it will flow.  Here I’ll summarize the first two chapters.  In the following posts I’ll cover the other four. Chapter One is tentatively entitled “Oral [...]

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. ************************************************************** 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 [...]

Trade Books and Scholarly Books

I indicated in my previous post that I would say a few things about each of the books that I am planning – today at least – to try to write over the next ten years or so.   The very next book will be trade book on Jesus Before the Gospels, a study of what happened to the stories about Jesus as they were altered, and invented, by Christians circulating them word of mouth before the writing of the Gospels.   The next book after that will be a scholarly treatment of the same thing.  Or that’s the plan. The reason I’m hedging my bet is because I never know whether there will be a scholarly book in my current research until my current research is my past research and I see whether there really is something there that I have to say to scholars, or not.   At this point, even though I have a rough idea of how I want to organize a trade book, and know where I need to go in order to [...]

By |2020-04-03T16:38:36-04:00August 17th, 2014|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|8 Comments

My Next Project

I’ve had several people ask what I’m working on, now that How Jesus Became God has come and gone from.   The answer is: the very next thing!   And it’s something that I’ve gotten really excited about, as excited as I was about How Jesus Became God.  For some reason, when I was doing that book over the past couple of years, I thought that it was going to be the climax of my trade book publishing career, and that everything would be downhill from there.   I was completely wrong about that.  I’m now just as passionate about the next project. I mentioned the book earlier on the blog, before I decided for sure that it was going to be next.  But it definitely is.   It will be about the oral traditions of Jesus in circulation in the years before the Gospels were written. So, just to give a bit of background -- a review for some of you and new information for probably some others.    Scholars have long held that Mark was the first of [...]

By |2020-04-03T16:38:58-04:00August 13th, 2014|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|118 Comments

More Background on Oral Traditions

Up until the 1920s, critical scholars who were deep into questions of New Testament studies had focused a lot of their attention (not all of it, obviously) on questions of textual criticism (how do we know what the “original” text was?) and source criticism (what are the written sources lying behind the New Testament – especially the Gospels?). The former was a matter of concern largely because it was thought that the words of Scripture were inspired by God – so it was important to know what those words were! The latter was a matter of concern in no small measure because of the intriguing questions themselves (was Mark the first Gospel? Did Matthew and Luke copy it? Did Q exist? and so on) but even more because of the significance of their answers for understanding the historical Jesus. If we want to get back to Jesus, and the later Gospels represent alterations of the traditions about him by later authors, then surely the best procedure is to determine our *earliest* sources. And if Mark [...]

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