Did the Gospels Distort Jesus’ Life?
An interview with Craig A. Evans, PhD.
From In Defense of Jesus
How do the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—fare when subjected to a historian’s scrutiny? I asked Evans what he considered to be the best criteria for assessing their reliability.
“One criterion historians use is multiple attestation,” he replied. “In other words, when two or three of the Gospels are saying the same thing, independently — as they often do — then this significantly shifts the burden of proof onto somebody who says they’re just making it up. There’s also the criterion of coherence. Are the Gospels consistent with what we know about the history and culture of Palestine in the 20s and
30s? Actually, they’re loaded with details that we’ve determined are correct thanks to archaeological discoveries.
“Then there’s the dating issue. The Synoptics were written within a generation of Jesus’ ministry; John is within two generations. That encourages us to see them as reliable because they’re written too close to the events to get away with a bunch of lies. And you don’t have any counter-gospels that are repudiating or refuting what they say. We have, then, a treasure trove from any historian’s point of view. Julius Caesar died in 44 BC, and the historian Suetonius is talking about him in 110 – 120 AD. That’s about 155 to 165 years removed. Tacitus, same thing. The Gospels are much better than that.”
“When would you date them?”
“Very cogent arguments have been made for all three Synoptics having been written in the 50s and 60s. Personally, I’d put the first Gospel, Mark, in the 60s. I think Mark had to have been within the shadow
of the Jewish-Roman war of 66 – 70. Jesus says in Mark 13:18, ‘Pray that this will not take place in winter.’ Well, it didn’t. It happened in the summer. This statement makes sense if Mark was published when the war was underway or about to occur. But if it was written in 71 or 72, as some have speculated, that would be an odd statement to leave in place.”
I interrupted. “But whether Mark was written in the 50s or 60s, you’re still talking very early.”
“Absolutely. Jesus died in 30 or 33 AD, and a lot of scholars lean toward 33. That means when Mark’s Gospel was composed, some of Jesus’ youngest followers and disciples would be in their 50s or 60s. Other people in their 30s and 40s grew up hearing stories about Jesus from firsthand eyewitnesses. There’s a density of witness that’s very significant. And, of course, don’t forget that most of Paul’s writings were composed before the Gospels.”
Seeking to clarify a key issue, I said: “When you say Mark was written some thirty-five years after Jesus’ ministry, you’re not suggesting the author had to think back and remember something that happened more
than three decades earlier.”
“No, there’s no one individual who had to try to remember everything. We’re not talking about the story of Jesus being remembered by one or two or three people who never see each other. We’re talking about whole communities, never smaller than dozens and probably in the hundreds, that got together and had connections, villages filled with Jesus people in Judea and in Galilee and immigrating throughout the Jewish Diaspora — lots of people pooling and sharing their stories. People were meeting frequently, reviewing his teaching, and making it normative for the way they lived. The teaching was being called to mind and talked about all the time.”
“Then,” I said, “this would protect the story of Jesus from the kind of distortion we see in the children’s game of telephone, where people whisper something, one to another, until at the end the original message is garbled?”
Evans nodded. “Unlike the telephone game, this is a community effort,” he said. “It’s not one guy who tells it to one other guy, who weeks later tells it to one other person, and on and on, so that with the passage of time there would be distortion. This was a living tradition that the community discussed and was constantly remembering, because it was normative, it was precious, they lived by it. The idea that they can’t remember what Jesus said, or they get it out of context, or they twist it, or they can’t distinguish between what Jesus actually said and an utterance of a charismatic Christian in a church much later — this is condescending.”
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