A Guest Post by Peter Kozushko
Since 2005, Bart Ehrman, a distinguished critical New Testament scholar, has authored four New York Times best sellers challenging the historical accuracy of the Bible. That is a significant readership for a Biblical scholar. Ehrman has succeeded in popularizing the efforts of The Jesus Seminar which sought to undermine confidence in the Gospels a decade before. Ehrman may have also won a significant number of converts. A 2016 report by the American Bible Society revealed that the percentage of American Bible skeptics rose over the previous six years from 12 percent to 22 percent. Whether a correlation exist between Ehrman’s popularity and this sudden increase in Bible skepticism in America, Ehrman has certainly had an impact. It is common place in our day to hear skeptics credit Ehrman for their personal doubts and questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible. In recent years this has been my experience conversing with skeptics and my latest doctoral work on the historical reliability of the Gospels has introduced me to many more. How should Bible believing Christians respond to Ehrman’s influence?
For starters, we need to familiarize ourselves with the key issues that Ehrman and his critical colleagues are addressing. There are two. The first issue has to do with the time the Gospels were written. While some scholars suspect the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written about 20 years after the events of Jesus, most scholars believe it was sometime between 35 and 45 years later, with the other Gospels being written during the following 15 years. That’s a large gap in time separating the events and the composition of the Gospels. How can we be sure the memories of Jesus were faithfully passed on and preserved as they circulated during those years? Critical scholars are skeptical they were passed with such care because of the other key issue. The Gospels vary significantly in their details. There are not just a few, there are numerous differences and discrepancies, many that are difficult to reconcile. This may surprise some Bible believing Christians, but it is a fact that even eminent evangelical Bible scholars, past and present, who affirm the full inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, candidly acknowledge. This is made patently clear in one of the most important documents produced in recent history (1978), The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was signed by 334 mostly American evangelical scholars and church leaders. It’s called in NT Biblical scholarship the synoptic problem and for critical scholars it’s a very big problem. We need to be aware of this.
Second, we need to familiarize ourselves with how critical scholars address the synoptic problem. These scholars are students of an early twentieth century movement in NT scholarship known as form criticism, a movement that responded to this problem largely in the negative. According to these scholars, the variability in the Gospels is clear evidence they are neither divinely inspired nor historically reliable accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus, but rather they are human writings expressing the early Christian views of Jesus modified or invented to address various community needs and interests. What likely happened to the authentic words and deeds of Jesus, critical scholars assume, is that they underwent numerous changes and additions as they circulated for years among the early Christians. Based on what early form-critics noted from studies in folklore literature, critical scholars suspect this is what normally happened in oral cultures as human memories and stories circulated for several decades, in different countries, told in different languages among people who had no contact with eyewitnesses or anyone who had. And so, critical scholars conclude the Gospels contain only fragments of historically verifiable data about the “real” historical Jesus—about 18 percent of the sayings of Jesus and about 16 percent of the deeds of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar—and the rest is simply embellishment to make the traditions of Jesus more suitable in addressing the needs and interests of the communities who received them. In a nutshell that is the form-critical hypothesis. Familiarity with this approach to the synoptic problem is essential for responding to Ehrman’s influence on Bible skeptics. If this is how the traditions of Jesus were passed along until they reached the Gospel writers, it is not unreasonable for people to be skeptical of the historical reliability and/or the divine inspiration of the Gospels.
But is that really what happened to the traditions of Jesus? Did they really pass through 40 years of careless memory before they were written down? If Bible skeptics are open to hearing another point of view, there is a great deal of new scholarship challenging the form-critical assumptions.
To begin with, recent studies by Samuel Byrskog on the use of eyewitness testimony in Greco-Roman history writing, further developed by Richard Bauckham, strongly suggest the traditions of Jesus would not have circulated among the early Christian communities apart from any contact with eyewitnesses as the form critics assumed. The Gospel writers would have followed the ancient history writing convention of consulted eyewitnesses, and the earliest evidence, especially from Papias, is that the traditions of Jesus were passed along by living and active accredited eyewitnesses who remained present in the churches, serving as ongoing authoritative sources and guardians ensuring the faithful transmission of the Jesus traditions all the way to the composition of the Gospels.
Secondly, new studies in orality, strongly endorsed by James Dunn and N.T. Wright, reveal that the differences and discrepancies in the Gospels are not due to the early Christians modifying and reinventing the traditions of Jesus during the oral period as the form critics assume. Rather, it is now patently clear that oral tradition was characteristic of such diversity only in the minor details, not in its central features. It is also evident that such diversity in retelling was encouraged to effectively teach and apply the traditions. This is precisely what we observe in the Gospels and what we should expect in a document written in a predominantly oral culture.
Finally, recent studies in memory, especially by Robert McIver, also place the reliability of the eyewitnesses and the oral tradition on a more solid foundation. Numerous psychological studies reveal that human memory has a very good capacity to retain and recollect the amount of information the eyewitnesses passed on between the years after Jesus’s ministry and the composition of Mark’s Gospel. I can certainly attest to this. I can still remember events that I witnessed or experienced 40 years ago. I especially remember my appendix bursting and nearly dying from it, as do my parents and siblings. We remember this event in my life because it was an extraordinary day in my life. But as significant as that personal event was to me and my family, the events, deeds, and teachings of Jesus, were inherently more memorable. They were unusual, significant, landmark, and life changing events that would have stuck in people’s memories, especially the disciples’ memory. But they were also passed on by a robust oral tradition, that would have reinforced and stabilized the tradition by frequent rehearsal, being told and re-told so on after the events were witnessed and becoming a part of the shared memories of those closest to Jesus who were present all the way up to the writing of the Gospels. The memories of Jesus could not have been passed along carelessly. Based on what we now know about the active presence of the eyewitnesses, the robust nature of oral tradition, and the reliability of memory regarding extraordinary events, it is far more likely that what we have in the Gospels is the actual authentic words and deeds of Jesus. We have every reason to be confident in the historical reliability of the Gospels.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.
Byrskog, Samuel. Story as History—History as Story. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Dunn, James D.G. Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
McIver, Robert K. Memory, Jesus, And The Synoptic Gospels. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Augsburg: Fortress Press, 1996.
Peter Kozushko (DMIN Acadia University) is Associate Pastor of Countryside Community Church, Sherwood OR, and Advocate for Christianity Explored North America.