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Undergraduate Courses (2): Introduction to the New Testament (Part 2)

Once students have come to see what the contents, characteristics, and emphases of each of the Gospels are, and have recognized that the Gospels cannot be taken as historically reliable accounts of what “really” happened in the life of Jesus, both because of their many discrepancies and because of historical implausibilities (as just two examples: Luke’s “census” that gets Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem; or the Triumphal Entry, where Jesus is publicly acclaimed messiah by the massive crowds and the authorities do nothing about it) – once students have recognized this, they are in a position to consider the criteria that scholars use to ferret out from sources such as these bona fide historical information.

I stress with my students that the literary questions one brings to the Gospels are different from historical questions.  The literary questions are the ones we ask about the Gospels as works of literature: what they want to teach and what message they want to convey.  The historical questions are ones we ask about the Gospels as sources: what they can tell us about historical events in the life of Jesus, that is, how they can inform us about what he really said and did (as opposed to what each of the Gospels claim he said and did).   It is one thing to say that in the Gospel of John Jesus said “I and the Father are one.”  It is a completely different thing to say that Jesus himself – the actual man, living in the 20s in Galilee – said these words.   John certainly indicates that he did say them.  But Jesus himself almost certainly did not say them.   And how do we know?  We have to approach the Gospels not only as literary documents that present what their authors want to say about Jesus (for John: he is equal with God), but also as historical documents that can instruct us about what happened in the life of Jesus.

When the class moves into the question of the historical Jesus, we naturally look at all the references to Jesus in other sources, outside the Gospels:  Paul, the rest of the New Testament, Josephus, Roman authors, and non-canonical Gospels.  These are enough to show that Jesus almost certainly did exist, but as a whole they do not give us much to go on if we want to know what he said and did.   Our earliest and best sources for that – as highly problematic as they are!  (I never downplay the problems.  Quite the opposite, as my students will eagerly, or ruefully, tell you) – are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But these are indeed problematic.  They are written decades after Jesus’ life (30, 40, 60 years later), by people who were not eyewitnesses and probably never met any eyewitnesses, writing in different countries, using a different language, and basing their accounts on stories that had been in circulation, by word of mouth, in all those intervening years and that had, as a result, been changed time and again, and sometimes made up.  It’s a problem.

But scholars have devised criteria for dealing with sources of this kind to extract from them historically reliable information.   I can devote fuller posts to each of these, if anyone wants.  For now, basically, in a nutshell, scholars look for traditions about what Jesus said or did that (a) are attested in multiple independent sources (if numerous sources independently say the same thing about Jesus, no one of these sources made it up, and the tradition must be earlier than them all);  (b) do not support the biases of the early Christian story tellers and authors (so that traditions of this kind were not “made up” by Christians, but were passed along because they were things known to have happened); and (c) cohere with what we know about first-century Palestinian Judaism (otherwise they can’t possibly apply to someone who was a first-century Palestinian Jew).

Scholars who apply these criteria to our Gospels are able to deduce a large number of facts about the life of Jesus.  Some of them may seem trivial to some of my students: Jesus was born and raised a Jew, in Jewish culture, to Jewish parents; he followed and came to teach the Jewish Law; he had brothers, one of whom was named James; he had twelve disciples; and, well, lots of other things.   Some of the facts are not so trivial: he was baptized by John the Baptist, spent a preaching ministry in Galilee, went the last week of his life to Jerusalem, where he raised the ire of the authorities and was crucified by the Romans.   Some of the facts are absolutely key to understanding what Jesus was all about: he was an apocalyptic prophet who believed that the world was controlled by forces of evil, but that God was soon to intervene to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him, and to establish a utopian kingdom here on earth – possibly with Jesus as the King.

I will discuss in greater detail this apocalyptic view of Jesus in my next post.

Personal Reflections Page
Undergraduate Courses (1): Introduction to the New Testament (Part 1)



  1. Avatar
    Jason Blizzard  May 22, 2012

    Great, informative post. Thanks, Dr. Ehrman!

  2. Avatar
    bamurray  May 22, 2012

    I’ve seen, somewhere on the internet (I know, great source!) some discussion that modern scholarship is moving away from the idea of criteria (such as multiple attestation, dissimilarity, etc.) and that the use of criteria is becoming seen as outmoded. Is there any truth to this, or were these sources just blowin smoke?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      My sense is that there are a lot of scholars who are dissatisfied with the old criteria (who isn’t?). But so far as I know, no one has suggested anyting better. So it’s easy to complain about the Status Quo, but much harder to come up with something superior to replace it. But we are all ears!

  3. Avatar
    Peter  May 22, 2012


    “I can devote fuller posts to each of these, if anyone wants.”

    Re. multiple attestation: would you elaborate on how these souces 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 dont think actually happened?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I deal with the question of which sources are independent in Did Jesus Exist? If you’d like to read what I have to say and still have quesitons, I’m happy to address them!

      Not a stupid question at all!! No, I can’t think of any traditions that pass all three criteria that I consider non-historical. Do you have any in mind?

  4. Avatar
    RyanBrown  May 23, 2012

    Professor Ehrman, what is the consensus on why the gospels were written quite a long period after the events that they relate? Was it because apocalyptic expectations obviated the need for written sources? Did it take decades for oral sources to reach someone who could actually write them down?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      It’s a great question. I’d like to devote a post to it, rather than deal with it here in these comments, if that’s OK!

  5. Avatar
    Adam  May 23, 2012

    I’m curious to know how much money you have been able to raise so far.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      So far we have raised about $6000 for hunger and homelessness. I’m expecting, or at least hoping for, much more and better things ahead! But everyday we get new members. Anything anyone can think of or do to increase the numbers, we would all be very grateful.

  6. Avatar
    Peter  May 24, 2012


    Re. multiple attestation: Yes, I’ve read ‘Did Jesus Exist?’. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious; please excuse me!! Maybe an example would bettter show why Im getting at. If you take John 3:1-21: you say this conversation almost certainly didn’t happen, and, owing to the sophisticated rhetorical greek that is used, I presume this tradition could not have come through the ‘normal’ oral tradition of 1st C. Palestine; therefore someone made it up to make a theological point. Why did you think that whoever made it up didn’t have access to the same material as the synoptics, and why don’t you think that he simply invented the account to reflect his theological bias, ignoring earlier traditions of which he was aware? Same for the inclusion of the ‘Logos’ passage and the changing of the day of Jesus’ death. Surely he knew that Jesus was crucified on Passover?
    I also wonder about the treatment by the 4 evangelists of JtB’s encounter with Jesus. You say they seem to have changed the nature of the relationship in order to ‘boost’ Jesus’ stature; surely they knew what really happened but deliberately changed it to suit their agenda? Matt. and Luke obviously did this this(e.g. with the Nativity accounts and genealogies) even though they undoubtedly had access to Mark ( I presume such accounts were very unlikey to have come thru’ the oral tradition).
    In other words, its very unclear to me where oral tradition ends and bold invention begins! So, with this in mind, how do you know that different traditions didn’t actually come from the same source but were just deliberately changed by the particular gospel writer or by whomever the writer got his information from?

    Re. traditions that pass the 3 criteria but possibly didnt happen:
    The ones I wonder about are: the betrayal by Judas of Jesus; the attack with a sword on the High Priest’s servant by one of Jesus’ disciples during his arrest(not the healing bit of the account, obviously); the placing of the INRI sign by PP on the cross; the crucifixion of the two thieves alongside Jesus; the accounts of the placing of the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head; and, maybe, Peter’s denials of Jesus, although Im not sure if the criterion of historical context is applicable here.

    Regards. Peter

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2012

      I’m not completely sure that I understand your questions, but it does seem to me that you’re right, it is a fine line between passing along a story in your own words, altering the story in light of a new situation, changing it so much that it is scarcely recognizable, and making it up (these are four of the options within an oral tradition; there are shades and gradations along the way). Yes, someone “made up” the Nicodemus episode; but I think it’s impossible to say whether they made it up knowing full well no such thing had happened, or if in the process of telling stories about Jesus and his confrontations with Jewish leaders such a story emerged.
      My sense is that the Gospel writers had no access to what “really” happened; I don’t think it is possible any longer to know whether they thought that their stories were actual history or not. There’s no way to get into their minds.
      For all the traditions you cite at the end, one would need to make a serious argument (i.e., one would need to cite the evidence) that each of these, one by one, pass all three criteria. That’s how this kind of scholarship works: each account has to be considered carefully, on its own merits, in the face of the three criteria. If a traditoin clearly does pass all three, then one needs to assess its general plausibility. If a tradition does indeed pass all the criteria with flying colors, one would have to make a pretty strong argument against its being historical, I should think.

  7. Avatar
    Peter  May 25, 2012


    Ok, Im sorry if you found my question about the independence of sources unclear. Maybe I’ll just ask you to point me to a book/article that sets out the reasons why scholars think that John/John’s ‘community’ didn’t have access to the synoptics.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2012

      Sorry! Best book is Moody Smith, John Among the Synoptics. Hope it gives you what you want.

  8. Avatar
    Kris  May 27, 2012


    I’m not sure if it will be of help to you or not, but here is what world renowned expert on oral transmission Jan Vansina says:

    …we cannot assume that the testimony of two different informants from the same community or even society is really independent. This is very important. In history, proof is given only when two independent sources confirm the same event or situation, but…it is not possible to do this with oral tradition wherever a corpus exists and information flows are unstemmed (i.e., in most cases). Feedback and contamination is the norm….No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as independent sources, even though they have different authors….they stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community. Once this is realized, it is easy to see that it also applies to John, the fourth Gospel… (Oral Tradition as History, 1985, pg. 159.)

    This seems a very important concept because if the gospels are not independent, then even traditions upon which they agree could simply be legends.

    Just my two cents

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