Did the New Testament Writers Record Fact or Fiction? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In two previous posts, Darrell argued that the Greek New Testament (NT) that we have today is almost identical to the twenty-seven books that were originally written.  These two posts can be found here and here.  In this post and following posts, I want to establish an answer to the obvious next question.  If the NT we have today is almost identical to the one originally written, that’s nice, but how do we know that what was written originally wasn’t a bunch of lies?

In other words, did the NT authors record fact or fiction?  Were they trying to record real history or were they making up a story to convince people to follow them?  Maybe what was written was so far removed from the real events that myth and legend overtook the truth.  In order to get an answer to this question, we will use some of the same criteria that historians employ to determine whether a document is reliable – whether the authors can be trusted.

The first thing we want to know about a historical document is how close to the events it was written.  The NT authors were primarily writing about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, who died around the year A.D. 33 (this fact is well-attested by ancient non-Christian historians).  If we are to trust the accounts written about his life, then the closer the documents are to A.D. 33, the better we can trust them.

So dating the original NT books is extremely important.  Note that we are talking about dating the original writings, not the manuscript copies that exist today.  Even though we don’t have the originals, we can still use historical analysis to deduce roughly when they were written.

One additional reason that dating the books is important is due to the nature of legendary development.  We’re all probably familiar with the way legends can develop about an event, given enough time.  In fact, history is full of strange and outrageous stories of Jesus or the apostles doing bizarre things (e.g., Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having a child).  The one thing these legends have in common is that they developed many generations and often hundreds of years removed from the time Jesus and the apostles lived.

For clarification, we are not talking about the development of lies or fabrications about an historical event, but the development of legend, which is defined as the outgrowth of a period of oral transmission of a tradition until the original facts have been lost.

In fact, historians have shown that it takes a minimum of three generations for legend to substantially corrupt core historical facts about an event.  Usually, more than 3 generations are required, but there are no examples of legend significantly crowding out truth in 1 or 2 generations.

Why is this?  As long as the eyewitnesses of an event are still alive, or their children, they will correct any legend that taints the true story.  When the eyewitnesses and their children start to die, there are fewer people left to correct falsehood, so legend can creep in.  This fact about history will prove useful in assessing the NT.

Next post, we will continue looking at this important question.

  • Susan

    Bill,
    You said, “…several historians have proven that it takes a minimum of three generations for legend to substantially corrupt core historical facts about an event.”

    Can you claify? It is an interesting and powerful statement. Do you a source for that?

    Thanks.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Susan,
    Glad to provide at least a couple.

    “The Roman historian Sherwin-White has noted that the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legends develop. He concluded that “the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” (Sherwin-White, 190). Julius Müller (1801–1878 ) challenged the scholars of his day to produce even one example in which an historical event developed many mythological elements within one generation (Müller, 29). None exist.”

    quote above from Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 8.

    His sources were:
    A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament
    J. Müller, The Theory of Myths, in Its Application to the Gospel History, Examined and Confuted

    “Two generations is too short a period for legendary tendencies to wipe out historical fact (Craig, 101).”

    quote above from Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 518.

    His source was:
    William Lane Craig, The Son Rises

    If you think about it, this idea of needing multiple generations makes a lot of sense. As long as the people are alive who saw the events and cared about the events, it will be difficult for legends to develop and not be checked. When you look at Christianity, you start seeing a lot of legendary accounts of Jesus cropping up in the middle and late second century, a hundred or more years after he was alive.

  • Bino Bolumai

    > In fact, several historians have proven that it takes a
    > minimum of three generations for legend to
    > substantially corrupt core historical facts about an
    > event. Usually, more than 3 generations are required,
    > but there are no examples of legend significantly
    > crowding out truth in 1 or 2 generations.

    #1 I’ve read that Craig’s representation of Sherwin-White is disingenuous:
    http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/2007/11/apologists-abuse-of-sherwin-white.html

    #2 DF Strauss pointed out 170 years ago, the Jesus myth began not with Paul, etc, but with Daniel, Isaiah, etc. many generations earlier.

    #3 I would like to investigate your important claim on my own. I’d like to review the ancient evidence. Please cite and quote the actual ancient texts on which this claim is based.

    #4 The evidence I am aware of proves this generations-to-myth claim at any rate is fantasy. Lucian’s first person history of Alexander the False Prophet absolutely proves that storeis abut magic gods, who answered prayer, did miracles and raised the dead could happen immediately. It happened. Lucian was there. He wrote it down.

    Bino Bolumai

    / In Bino Veritas >

  • Bill Pratt

    Hello Bino,
    In a previous comment, I mentioned some sources that make the claim about the time it takes legends to develop. You can check these out for yourself.

    I think you misunderstand the issue. Those who claim that the books of the NT are largely tainted by legend are making the claim that the facts about the life and death of Jesus were lost over a long period of time because people who wrote about the events in the NT were only passing along fourth, fifth, sixth hand information, like the “telephone game.” If the apostles actually saw the things they wrote about, but they never occurred, then they are flat-out liars and legend has nothing to do with it. In order for the legend theory to work, the writers of the NT cannot be eyewitnesses or have access to eyewitnesses. I will address that in a later post.

  • Bino Bolumai

    > Hello Bino,

    > In a previous comment, I mentioned
    > some sources that make the claim
    > about the time it takes legends to
    > develop. You can check these out for
    > yourself.

    If you mean your comment to Susan, yes I did see that, and I did check the Sherwin-White source out, and found – and linked to – an analysis of SW that, in contrast to your mere citation, suggests he didn’t discover what you seem to imagine he did.

    Have you yourself read the Sherwin-White source your cited to Susan?

    Or perhaps there is some other comment somewhere else here you can direct me to. Perhaps one that cites ancient sources rather than the alleged opinion of someone somewhere.

    > I think you misunderstand the issue.

    Wouldn’t be the first time.

    > Those who claim that the books of the
    > NT are largely tainted by legend are
    > making the claim that the facts about
    > the life and death of Jesus were lost
    > over a long period of time because
    > people who wrote about the events in
    > the NT were only passing along
    > fourth, fifth, sixth hand information,
    > like the “telephone game.” If the
    > apostles actually saw the things they
    > wrote about, but they never occurred,
    > then they are flat-out liars and legend
    > has nothing to do with it. In order for
    > the legend theory to work, the writers
    > of the NT cannot be eyewitnesses or
    > have access to eyewitnesses. I will
    > address that in a later post.

    The evidence is clear that ancient eyewitnesses did spin legends.

    Jospehus was an eyewitness of miracles:
    “for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers.”
    Antiquities, 8.2.5

    And of course Tacitus, 4.81, cites eyewitness—”Those who were present still attest both miracles today, when there is nothing to gain by lying.”—of Vespasian’s healing miracle.

    Finally, consider Glycon, the god invented by Alexander the False Prophet. Alexander was certainly an eyewitness – he was the prophet who invented Glycon.

    “Alexander’s purpose was to separate the faithful from their money; he did that by keeping Glycon’s story as close to their religious ideas as he could—by inventing a new manifestation of an old God, and by trimming the new God out with all the goodies the ancients associated with Gods. Prophesies made and fulfilled. Divine birth. God-sent dreams. Heaven. Hell. Miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead. Back then, when people invented new Gods, these are the things they included.”

    I hope in your later post you cite the ancient evidence on which you base your theory.

    Bino Bolumai

    / In Bino Veritas >

  • Bill Pratt

    Bino,
    You are confusing legends with deception or possibly misunderstandings. You are also begging the question by assuming that these people (quoted in your comment) were all weaving stories instead of telling the truth.

    Who is to say that Josephus did not see people released from some sort of possession? How do you know that didn’t happen? It seems that you are just assuming it didn’t happen.

    Who is to say that Vespasian wasn’t healed?

    In Alexander’s case, he was a liar, just as your quote says. He wasn’t creating legends; he was lying to “separate the faithful from their money.”

    None of your quotes demonstrate legendary development.

    With regard to citing ancient sources, I don’t have time to track down every single source for every single thing I read. No human being does. I make choices about tracking down sources by weighing whether the claim seems reasonable and whether I can trust the source. In some cases, I go beyond my initial source, but in other cases I do not. When you have ancient sources that clearly refute what I’m saying, I’m willing to listen. I always want to learn.

    I read the “refutation” of William Lane Craig’s reading of Sherwin-White and found it to be weak. My point was only to say that historians have found it difficult, if not impossible, for legend to totally corrupt the core truth of an event within two generations. I think Sherwin-White would completely agree with that statement and I think common sense would as well.

  • Bino Bolumai

    Dear Bill,

    > You are confusing legends with deception or
    > possibly misunderstandings. You are also
    > begging the question by assuming that these
    > people (quoted in your comment) were all
    > weaving stories instead of telling the truth.

    > Who is to say that Josephus did not see people
    > released from some sort of possession? How do
    > you know that didn’t happen? It seems that you
    > are just assuming it didn’t happen.

    > Who is to say that Vespasian wasn’t healed?

    > In Alexander’s case, he was a liar, just as your
    > quote says. He wasn’t creating legends; he was
    > lying to “separate the faithful from their money.”

    > None of your quotes demonstrate legendary
    > development.

    > I read the “refutation” of William Lane Craig’s
    > reading of Sherwin-White and found it to be
    > weak. My point was only to say that historians
    > have found it difficult, if not impossible, for legend
    > to totally corrupt the core truth of an event within
    > two generations. I think Sherwin-White would
    > completely agree with that statement and I think
    > common sense would as well.

    OK. I’m trying to get to the root of the facts. I accept your admission that your claim here is based on tendentious hearsay and not facts.

    ….Good to know.

    Even so, I’m not clear what probative value you attach to Dr. Craig’s unverifiable version of history.

    For one thing, the only way to get there is to imagine, as you do, that the Roman Emperor Vespasian could do miracles. And other folks too. Jesus could do miracles. Pagans could do miracles….Jesus is like the pagans then?

    Or the Jesus stories could have been misunderstandings?

    Or it could be someone just made up the Jesus stories, like someone made up the Glycon stuff. You know, of course, that many people did honestly believe Glycon was real. These were exactly the sorts of stories ancient people believed. Our gospel writers may have honestly believed made up stories.

    So it is entirely possible our gospels derive from made up stories, or misunderstandings, or pagan miracles – all within 1 generation.

    Bino Bolumai

    / In Bino Veritas >

  • Bill Pratt

    “So it is entirely possible our gospels derive from made up stories, or misunderstandings, or pagan miracles – all within 1 generation.”

    All of that is possible, but why should we believe that? The only evidence you’ve given is that there were some wild stories circulating around 2,000 years ago. But there are wild stories going around today as well.

    But there were also historically acurate accounts being written 2,000 years ago, just as there are today. Our job is to determine which category to place the NT documents, fact or fiction. I am building a case for “fact” in this series of posts by subjecting them to the same criteria that you would any other historical document.

    There are several more posts in this series, so please read how I develop the rest of my case.

  • Bino Bolumai

    > > “So it is entirely possible our gospels
    > > derive from made up stories, or
    > > misunderstandings, or pagan miracles
    > > – all within 1 generation.”

    > All of that is possible, but why should
    > we believe that? The only evidence
    > you’ve given is that there were some
    > wild stories circulating around 2,000
    > years ago. But there are wild stories
    > going around today as well.

    I’m sorry Bill, I wasn’t clear. You are presenting a series of reasons you believe the NT is reliable. I am taking your claims seriously, and examining each reason carefully. My list of possibilities here addresses only your “legend” claim.

    Do we agree then that the 3-generations-to-legend element of your proof fails to rule out pagan sources for our Jesus’ stories?

    > But there were also historically acurate
    > accounts being written 2,000 years
    > ago, just as there are today. Our job is
    > to determine which category to place
    > the NT documents, fact or fiction. I am
    > building a case for “fact” in this series
    > of posts by subjecting them to the
    > same criteria that you would any other
    > historical document.

    Yes. It is all very interesting.

    > There are several more posts in this
    > series, so please read how I develop
    > the rest of my case.

    Excellent. Yes I will.

    So far we’ve seen:
    The 3-generations-to-legend business doesn’t work, and

    There is no direct evidence the gospels existed before 140ish AD, and

    Your claim that the gospels do not mention the destruction of the temple is flatly contradicted by Mark 13.

    Thank goodness I’m here to help you out!

    Bino Bolumai

    / In Bino Veritas >

  • Bill Pratt

    “The 3-generations-to-legend business doesn’t work”

    You have yet to provide any evidence of a real historical event being significantlly corrupted by legend within 2 generations. Until you do that, you haven’t made a scratch in this point.

    “There is no direct evidence the gospels existed before 140ish AD”

    This is a weak argument for several reasons: 1) historians do not only consider when a document is directly attested when dating it (only you do that); they look at other evidence both internal and external to the documents under question, 2) many scholars date the NT books in the first century, although some don’t, but even ultra-liberal theologian John A. T. Robinson dated the Gospels between a.d. 40 to 65, 3) Paul’s writings speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and virtually every scholar in the world agrees Paul wrote most of the books attributed to him in the mid-first century, 4) if we only used direct attestation to date books, then how would the works of other ancient writers, such as Julius Caesar and Plato be dated? Do we have attestation of these works within a few years of their original writing?

    “Your claim that the gospels do not mention the destruction of the temple is flatly contradicted by Mark 13.”

    Honestly, this cracks me up. Jesus was predicting the destruction of the temple in Mark 13, not describing it as a past event. My whole point is that nobody in the NT was talking about the destruction of the temple as a past event.

    Thank you for your help!

  • Bino Bolumai

    Bill,

    Thank you for your fine answers.

    > “The 3-generations-to-legend business doesn’t
    > work”

    > You have yet to provide any evidence of a real
    > historical event being significantly corrupted by
    > legend within 2 generations. Until you do that, you
    > haven’t made a scratch in this point.

    There’s no reasonable question that Glycon’s cult was a “real” historical event http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycon . Of course Glycon’s magic powers were not real historical events – that’s exactly the point. They were made up. He didn’t really raise the dead, but people said he did. People in the first generation.

    So yes, this real historical event was corrupted by magic stories.

    Ditto the other miracles whose direct evidence we reviewed.

    As to your use of “legend,” yes your statement is technically true, but only because you’ve chosen to define “legend” as, effectively, only those stories that can accrete in 2 or three generations. Your point is a tautology. As such it does not make any conclusion about the origin of our Jesus stories either more or less likely.

    An actually relevant question would be: In the ancient world, did miraculous stories attach to gods and divine men in less than 2 generations, We have reviewed some of the evidence. The evidence is incontrovertible. Yes. Magic stories could and did attach to gods and divine men immediately.

    Therefore it remains possible the ancient stories about the divine man Jesus attached to him immediately.

    Therefore your 3-generations-to-legend business doesn’t work

    > “There is no direct evidence the gospels existed
    > before 140ish AD”

    > This is a weak argument for several reasons: 1)
    > historians do not only consider when a document is
    > directly attested when dating it (only you do that);
    > they look at other evidence both internal and
    > external to the documents under question,

    Yes, you are correct. I don’t mean this to be an argument so much as a statement that’s worth keeping in mind, to keep our perspective, to protect us from the sin of pride.

    You are correct, the dates must depend on other evidence. Which is why, I think, the Ignatius & 1 Clement quotations are important. Paul doesn’t mention or quote or tell stories from our gospels. That suggests Paul didn’t know about them – that they hadn’t been written, or at least circulated, in his time.

    If that reasoning works for Paul, it should also work for the earliest datable fathers. It is certain they do not name our gospels—or any written source other that Paul and the OT. The do not tell stories, facts from Jesus life, from our Gospels. It is not clear that they quote from our gospels. That suggests (doesn’t prove, suggests) that like Paul Ignatius and 1 Clement didn’t know about our gospels. What works for Paul should work for them; it suggests (doesn’t prove) out gospels hadn’t been written yet.

    > 2) many
    > scholars date the NT books in the first century,
    > although some don’t, but even ultra-liberal
    > theologian John A. T. Robinson dated the Gospels
    > between a.d. 40 to 65,

    It is certainly not true that “all scholars,” or even most, agree with the pre 73 dating. Many do not. The Mark 13 temple statements are taken as evidence of the later dates.

    Those who do give the early dates rely on circularity, and the arguments you have been giving. We are exploring those arguments together. So far, they ain’t working so good.

    > 3) Paul’s writings speak of
    > the death and resurrection of Jesus, and virtually
    > every scholar in the world agrees Paul wrote most
    > of the books attributed to him in the mid-first
    > century,

    Yes, I agree. But we aren’t discussing Paul’s dates. We’re discussing the gospel’s dates. And Paul doesn’t mention the gospels.

    The myther theory is that Paul’s Jesus was another Enoch, an OT figure heavily mythologized by Jews in the inter-testamental period. I’m not saying I believe this. But I’m interested in whether it is a coherent theory.

    “These letters [of Paul] have no allusion to the parents of Jesus, let alone to the virgin birth. They never refer to a place of birth (for example by calling him “of Nazareth”). They give no indication of the time or place of his earthly existence. They do not refer to his trial before a Roman official, nor to Jerusalem as the place of execution. They mention neither John the Baptist, nor Judas, nor Peter’s denial of his Master. (They do, of course, mention Peter, but not no imply that he, any more than Paul himself, had known Jesus while he had been alive.) “

    > 4) if we only used direct attestation to date
    > books, then how would the works of other ancient
    > writers, such as Julius Caesar and Plato be dated?
    > Do we have attestation of these works within a few
    > years of their original writing?

    I have no theory about when Caesar’s books were written, or Plato’s.

    > Thank you for your help!

    Not at all. I’m delighted to be of service.

    Bino Bolumai

    / In Bino Veritas >

  • Bill Pratt

    “But we aren’t discussing Paul’s dates. We’re discussing the gospel’s dates. And Paul doesn’t mention the gospels. . . .Paul doesn’t mention or quote or tell stories from our gospels. That suggests Paul didn’t know about them – that they hadn’t been written, or at least circulated, in his time.”

    Bino, my argument was never completely based on the gospels. You have consistently kept coming back to the gospels, but my posts have always been about the NT writings, as a whole. It doesn’t matter to my argument whether Paul knew specifically about the gospels. Paul clearly knew about the chief historical claim of the gospels, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, in 1 Cor 15. The oral creed in 1 Cor 15 has been dated to the 30’s AD, right after Jesus died. You can actually throw out the gospels, and still this evidence alone is powerful testimony that the claims about Jesus’ death and resurrection were early.

    “The Mark 13 temple statements are taken as evidence of the later dates.”

    How can the Mark 13 temple statements be taken as evidence of later dates? Jesus was making a prediction about the future.

    “An actually relevant question would be: In the ancient world, did miraculous stories attach to gods and divine men in less than 2 generations, We have reviewed some of the evidence. The evidence is incontrovertible. Yes. Magic stories could and did attach to gods and divine men immediately.”

    You are arguing about something that nobody disputes because it has little or no bearing on the historical accuracy of the NT documents. Bino, “miraculous stories attach to gods and divine men in less than 2 generations” today!!! In fact, I just gave an example of one such man in my latest post.

    What you haven’t dealt with is the fact that in ancient history, true historical accounts were also reported. By your logic, we should throw out all ancient historical accounts. Tacitus, Josephus, Herotodus, Plato – all of these documents should be thrown out because they were written by gullible pre-moderns. How does one decide between fact and fiction in the ancient near east? What criteria would you use?

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  • DonS.

    If you don’t understand the protocol followed by historians, especially concerning the birth of myth, roll your sleeves up and examine the plethora of information available in books or the Internet.

    To say that the text of the New Testament is myth or corrupted is to say you haven’t done your homework.

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