Gospel Reliability and Embellishment

I’m currently listening to a podcast (“Unbelievable” - on the reliability of the gospels) and a question occurred to me. There have been several debates around similar issues, so none of this is really new ground.

The Gospels were not written as the events happened - no one believes this. Everyone believes that they were written after the fact, up to several decades (my view).

This being the case, do believers believe that there were any embellishments/historical mistakes/fibs in the gospels?

It seems to me that quite a lot of stories get ‘fudged’, ‘embellished’, what have you over time (if not on the first telling!). It doesn’t take a long time for this to happen with regard to religious leaders either (Sabbatai Zevi). These stories don’t have to be miraculous either. Even with simply famous people these things happen (On Penn and Teller’s show, they go over some discrepencies with Elvis’ biographies). Certainly when I’ve told stories, or had stories told to me, even days after the events, things are ‘less clear’. I have friends who make up bits and pieces out of whole cloth, hours after the original event.

That being said, do Christians believe that the gospels fall victim to this? If not, why not? If so, then how do you tell which bits are embellished or made up?

It seems to me that it would be extremely problematic to accept any sort of false witness in the gospels, yet it also seems to me that they cannot be denied, based on human fallibility.

I suppose one could argue that they were divinely inspired - but if so, what is the evidence of this? I mean, it’s not like the early Christians had just the four gospels - there were multiple gospels, most of which were discarded hundreds of years after the ‘events’ as (essentially) rubbish.

I do not believe that the Gospels are perfect. However, by the standards of ancient history they are remarkably good. And though I personally place trust in testimony through the Holy Spirit and church tradition, I’ve seen solid defenses of the gospel record written by people who deliberately refuse to appeal to either of those two things. Two of the best are Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma, by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, and, from a more academic perspective but covering most of the same topics, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg.

On the issue of dating, I simply compare the gospels to other historical works we have. It can reasonably said (with all the usual caveats) that a consensus opinion among scholars has Mark being written circa 70 A.D., Matthew and Luke circa 80 A.D., and John Circa 100 A.D. I personally would argue for earlier dating but let’s use those dates for the sake of argument at the moment. It’s most likely that Jesus’ adult ministry was from 30 to 33 A.D. How does that compare to other ancient historical documents that people rely on?

Carl Sagan, a well-known skeptic, mentions in his book Cosmos his admiration for the series of Ionian philosophers who he credits for inventing many scientific concepts. Among these philosophers the most famous are Thales of Miletos, Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Xenophanes. If you look into it, you’ll find that everything we know about these guys comes from sources dating at least a century and often several centuries after the fact. Further, it often comes from piecing together small fragments and references from many different sources. Nonetheless, Sagan seems to accept that the information about them is basically reliable. And so do I, for that matter.

Another example is the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote two major works: Antiquities and Jewish War. Together they cover the entire scope of Jewish history up to the time of Josephus’ life, and is considered the authoritative source on a great many events spanning a range of centuries. For many figures it is the only source we have.

Perhaps the best known work of ancient history is The Histories, by Herodotus. It is our primary source for famous events such as the Battle of Marathon and the last stand at Thermopylae. It was written roughly 40-60 years after those events and also covers much from centuries earlier in Greek and Middle Eastern history.

So in comparison to that, it is clear that the material we have about Jesus is notable both for its large quantity and its proximity in time to the events. So as I said, not perfect, but remarkably good considering the circumstances. For the overwhelming majority of ancient figures, we can only wish that we had 4 biographies written within 35-70 years of their life in addition to a large collection of relevant letters.

The non-canonical gospels were written much later than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Some scholars try to argue that certain non-canonicals can be dated earlier, but they do so in the absense of any hard evidence.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you are arguing for:

  1. Historical proximity - ie, the Gospels are close to the time of Jesus (say 10-20 years, to be generous).
  2. Church Tradition.

I don’t see how either of these get around the human angle that I brought up.

Actually, the question about reliability makes a false assumption about the nature and function of the Gospels. Not only are they not an objective historical account, they were never intended to be. Their function was pedagogical: informing enquirers and new Christians about the role and teachings of Jesus. They were subjective, directed at making specific points: Matthew, that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah; Mark, that He was the wonder-working Son of God; John, that the human being Jesus of Nazareth was the eternal Word made flesh in human form. This intentionality shapes and forms the ways in which they were written.

As well, one must remember that they are products of their time. Reconstruction of speeches from memory and notes was very common in a time without recording devices or shorthand. Miracles were not see4n as ‘violations’ of laws of nature but rather as signs pointing to specific underlying meanings.

When the average individual, without scholarly skills, brings to them the presuppositions of modern objective historical writing, he does himself and them and their authors both a disservice. They were written in a certain genre of biographical narrative that is long since archaic in our day, for particular purposes. Trying them against the standard of historicity is in error.

I actually have more to say, but I was running short on time when I wrote that first post. On the issue of timing, as I said, I’ll accept 35-70 years as the time elapsed between the actual events and the writing of the gospels. So the question becomes whether we would expect sizable changes if the record of Jesus’ life was transmitted orally for that long and then written down. To answer that, in a previous thread I mentioned the work of Dr. Alfred Lord of Harvard, who studied firsthand the transmission of oral traditions in several different societies.

Dr. Lord’s work has been confirmed by many other researchers, so it establishes that you can have a reliable core of information, as long or longer than the gospels, transmitted for much longer periods than the ones we’re talking about. With that said, there are several other reasons to believe that the gospels are generally trustworthy.

First, there is the issue of the type of writing they present. There are distinctive signs that alert scholars to a document either being or not being reliable. Signs that indicate that it does come well-remembered firsthand experience include specific place names rather than generic place descriptions, specific dates and time intervals, names for characters rather than vague descriptors, personal details, quoting exact dialogue rather than summarizing, and other types of incidental details. Obviously none of these things alone can prove that a particular piece of writing is accurate, but taken together they can certainly point to accuracy.

Dr. Wolfgang Schadewelt, a well-known scholar of classical literature, had this to say about the Synoptic gospels: “I am particularly concerned here to note that when we read the Synoptic gospels, we cannot be other than captivated by the experiential vividness with which we are confronted … I know of no other area of history-writing, biography, or poetry where I encounter so great a wealth of such material in such a small space.” The Boyd and Eddy book mentioned above quotes several other scholars with similar assessments.

Second, there is the issue of multiple sources. Good historians consult as many sources as they can to establish reliability. Herodotus did so and it’s part of what makes him the founder of the study of history as we know it. While academic scholars are generally wrapped up in the ‘two-source hypothesis’, i.e. the idea that Luke and Matthew both used as sources the gospel of Mark and unknown source called ‘Q’, there’s actually strong evidence that there was other written material existed in the time period before they started writing. Luke says at the start that he has access to “many” different records of the life of Jesus. There’s textual reason to believe that he was working with at least four different written sources, and there’s strong reason to believe that Matthew had an additional source (whether written or oral we don’t know).

Odd, the Wikipedia entry on Lord says

which hardly supports your contention of accuracy. Add to that the fact that, unlike most cases of oral tradition, many of the Gospel writers lived far away from the events and wrote in a different language.

Do you think the resurrection story was meant to be a historical account or a metaphorical one?

Yes. :slight_smile:

And I am not saying that simply to be humorous, either. Let me explain:

It is my firm and considered belief that on the first Easter Sunday, Something happened – some event that convinced a group[ of formerly rather doltish followers that Jesus had, improbably, returned from the dead. Now, the accounts are, in a word, bizarre. At one point He is depicted as flesh-and-blood, able to share a fish dinner in [del]Memison[/del] Galilee, and the next, He is appearing and disappearing like something out of a poorly written fantasy. And this is not a contrast between Gospels; the two disparate concepts are contained within each of the Gospels.

I can only conclude that: 1 The Resurrection was a historical event of some sort, not a later accretion to the mythos, but 2 It was far from a literal resuscitation of Jesus’s dead body, as some of the literalists would insist. As initial hypothesis I rather like Paul’s concept of the “spiritual body” from I Corinthians 15, but I won’t insist on it.

The point I’m making is that we’re talking something that was experiential reality to those who encountered it, not something “taken on faith” in the sense of doctrine held without phenomenal supportive evidence. But it is inconsistent with either bodily resuscitation or miraculous post-death spiritual appearance.

I could go on at length on this. But I think my point is clear: a historical event happened. But it’s not one easily defined, even by the standard Christian bodily resurrection doctrine. And it has some very rich metaphorical significance.

Less than clear. No one wrote it down for quite a while, and the rest of the population, which would have at least heard of such an event, seemed less than impressed. However, you did answer my question quite nicely, so thanks.

The later gospels appear to based on earlier gospels. So much so that scholars have developed strong evidence that there is a missing link (known as Quelle, or Q) in the linage. Not surprisingly then, they are fairly consistent, with one massive exception:

Mark is thought by most biblical scholars (correct me if I am wrong) to be the earliest gospel. The fact that ends with an empty tomb, and fails to mention a resurrection is stunning in comparison to the later gospels. So much so that Benedictine monks felt compelled to add verses, lest someone fail to read the later gospels and miss perhaps the single greatest pillar of Christian faith.

The argument from Dr. Lord and other anthropologists that are quoted in the two books mentioned above don’t deal with his take on Homer, but rather find the relevant examples in twentieth-century studies of cultures that rely primarily on oral transmission. In the case of Homer we have a work that probably changed over the course of several centuries.