Category Archives: New Testament Reliability

Do the Three Accounts of Paul’s Conversion in Acts Contradict Each Other?

The conversion of Saul/Paul is so important to the author of the Book of Acts that he presents the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26). Each version is different, and this fact has led some critics to say that the accounts are contradictory. But is that necessarily the case?

First, we must note that there are several common elements in the three versions:

  • Saul is on his way to Damascus to gather up Christians.
  • He sees an intense light.
  • The Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him.
  • Saul asks who the speaker is.
  • Jesus reveals that it is he.

What are the differences? Darrel Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) , writes:

The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.

Bock then argues that each of these differences can be reconciled. About the different experiences of the men traveling with Saul,

The elements at play here can be reconciled (Witherington 1998, 312– 13), as for instance in the following way: The men hear a sound, but it is not intelligible to them; they also see a light but not Jesus himself. Only Saul sees someone in the light and is able to discern a speaking voice in the sound. Saul’s companions experience something less than the full event, which means that the appearance is neither an entirely private vision nor a fully disclosed public event. It is a public event whose details are for one man alone, Saul of Tarsus.

John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary , agrees with Bock:

Paul’s traveling companions served as authenticators that what happened to Paul was an objective event, not merely a rumbling of his inner psyche. They heard a sound, but they did not see the vision of Jesus. Acts 22:9 says that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke with Paul. The two accounts are not contradictory but underline the same event. Paul’s companions heard a sound and saw a light. They could verify that an objective heavenly manifestation took place. They did not participate in the heavenly communication, however, neither seeing the vision of Jesus nor hearing the words spoken to Paul. The revelation was solely to Paul.

Regarding Ananias being left out of Acts 26, Bock writes, “This may be in part because the book has already mentioned him in detail twice, in Acts 9 and 22. Luke chooses not to be redundant on this detail, and so he provides a telescoped account.”

Regarding Saul not mentioning his call to the Gentiles in Acts 9, “Ananias notes in 9:15 that Saul would be called to a Gentile mission, so we probably have another example of telescoping. Another possibility is that Luke chose not to note this detail in his third-person narrative because the Gentile mission had not yet taken place, but this argument is somewhat weakened by the mention of the mission to Ananias. In any case, Saul’s not mentioning his Gentile mission in Acts 9 is simply an outcome of Luke’s literary choice, the exact reason for which is not clear.”

Bock concludes:

As is common in ancient retellings, each version has some variation so that each adds something to the reader’s understanding. Witherington (1998, 303– 15) has a helpful discussion of the relationship between these three accounts. He stresses that all of them are summaries and are not intended to provide comprehensive information.

How Did Roman Crucifixion Kill Jesus?

James A. Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , writes:

Crucifixion seems to have been invented by the Persians, who transmitted it to the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans learned it. It was the ultimate Roman punishment for slaves and provincials, but it was not used for Roman citizens. It was one of the most horrifying forms of execution ever devised. After having been stripped and flogged, the victim was lashed and/or nailed to a pole. John 20:25 certainly implies that Jesus’ hands at least were nailed (cf. Acts 2:23; Col 2:14). Evidently there were different styles of crosses including a single upright pole and two crossed poles in the form of an X, but the most common seems to have been a vertical pole and a horizontal one in the form of a T with the crossbar either at the top or near the top of the vertical piece. The usual practice was for the condemned to carry the crossbar to the place of execution where he was affixed to it and where it was hoisted upon the vertical stake that was permanently fixed. Death usually came slowly as a result of exposure and exhaustion. Inasmuch as no vital organ was damaged, it often took two or three days for the subject to die, although death could be hastened by breaking the legs (cf. John 19:31–33).

Norman Geisler writes in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics :

The nature of the crucifixion assures death. . . . Jesus hung on the cross from 9 in the morning until just before sunset (Mark 15:25, 33). He bled from gashes in his hands and feet and from the thorns that pierced his scalp. These wounds would have drained away much blood over more than six hours. Plus, crucifixion demands that one constantly pull up by the hands and push on the injured feet in order to breathe. This caused excruciating pain from the nails. . . .

Beyond these injuries, Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear. From this wound flowed a mixture of blood and water (John 19:34), a proof that physical death had occurred. This detail alone, and its confirmation by modern medical experts, strongly validates the claim that this narrative is an eyewitness account. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (21 March 1986) concluded:

‘Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.’

Jesus said he was dying when he declared on the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And when ‘he had said this, he breathed his last’ (vs. 46). John renders this, ‘he gave up his spirit’ (John 19:30). His death cry was heard by those who stood nearby (Luke 23:47–49).

The Roman soldiers, accustomed to crucifixion and death, pronounced Jesus dead. Although it was a common practice to break the legs of the victim to speed death (so that the person could no longer breathe), they did not believe it necessary to break Jesus’ legs (John 19:33).

Pilate double-checked to make sure Jesus was dead before he gave the corpse to Joseph to be buried. ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph’ (Mark 15:44–45).

Jesus was wrapped in about 100 pounds of cloth and spices and placed in a sealed tomb for three days (Matt. 27:60; John 19:39–40). If he was not dead by then, the lack of food, water, and medical treatment would have finished him.

There is simply no way that Jesus did not die on the cross. But let’s pretend that somehow he was only near death when he was put in the tomb. What would have happened next? Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus, describes the scene:

D. F. Strauss’s critique is every bit as pertinent today as it was on the day he offered it. He asked us to suppose that a man was removed from his cross half dead, buried in a tomb and somehow reenergized after a few days. Having awakened from his stupor and wanting out of the dark tomb, he places his nail-pierced hands on the very heavy stone blocking his entrance and pushes it out of the way. He then walks blocks on pierced and wounded feet in search of his disciples. Finally, he arrives at the place they are staying and knocks on the door, which Peter opens only to see a severely wounded and dehydrated Jesus who is hunched over and looks up at Peter and through his extreme pain grimaces and says, ‘I’m the firstfruits of the general resurrection!’ Such a Jesus would never have convinced his disciples that he was the risen prince of life. Alive? Barely. Resurrected? Never. Allison comments, ‘How a flagellated, half-dead victim of the hideous torture of crucifixion could impress others as triumphant over death is hard to envisage.’

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 2


And the fourth line of evidence is

the very low probability of surviving crucifixion. As noted earlier, crucifixion and the torture that many times preceded it was a very brutal process. In fact, only one account exists in antiquity of a person surviving crucifixion. Josephus reported seeing three of his friends crucified. He quickly pleaded with his friend the Roman commander Titus, who ordered that all three be removed immediately and provided the best medical care Rome had to offer. In spite of these actions, two of the three still died. Thus, even if Jesus had been removed from his cross prematurely and medically assisted, his chances of survival were quite bleak. In addition, no evidence exists that Jesus was removed while alive or that he was provided any medical care whatsoever, much less Rome’s best.

Licona summarizes the views of historians with quotes from across the ideological spectrum:

Given the strong evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion, without good evidence to the contrary the historian must conclude that the process killed him. This is the conclusion shared by virtually all scholars who have studied the subject. John McIntyre comments, ‘Even those scholars and critics who have been moved to depart from almost everything else within the historical content of Christ’s presence on earth have found it impossible to think away the factuality of the death of Christ.’ McIntyre is quite correct.  Atheist Gerd Ludemann writes, ‘Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.’ Crossan, who denies the authenticity of a large majority of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels, comments that there is not the ‘slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate’ and, ‘That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.’ For the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, ‘The passion of Jesus is part of history.’ The rather skeptical scholar Paula Fredriksen writes, ‘The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.’

Licona wraps up his analysis:

In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. The event is multiply attested by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and thus not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events. They appear in multiple literary forms, being found in annals, historiography, biography, letters, and tradition in the form of creeds, oral formulas, and hymns. Some of the reports are very early and can reasonably be traced to the Jerusalem apostles. The Passion Narratives appear credible, since they fulfill the criterion of embarrassment and contain numerous plausible details. Finally, the probability of surviving crucifixion was very low.

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 1

Many Muslims, and other skeptics of Christianity, deny that Jesus actually died on the cross. They promote theories that Jesus had a twin that died, or that someone took Jesus’ place on the cross, or that a drug put Jesus into a coma-like state until he revived in the tomb. What evidence is there that Jesus actually died from crucifixion?

Virtually all historical scholars agree that Jesus died from crucifixion. Historian Michael Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach , argues that there are at least four reasons that scholars come to this position.

The first evidence is that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested by a fair number of ancient sources, Christian and non-Christian alike. It is very probable that [the Jewish historian] Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. [The ancient Roman historian] Tacitus, [ancient pagan writers] Lucian and Mara bar Serapion are all certainly aware of the event. Lucian adds that Jesus’ crucifixion took place in Palestine.

In Christian sources, Jesus’ execution is widely reported, with and without specifying the mode of crucifixion. All four canonical Gospels report Jesus’ death by crucifixion as do numerous other books and letters of the New Testament that refer to it regularly. Jesus’ death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in noncanonical literature. Moreover, there is no ancient evidence to the contrary.

A second evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the reports are early. Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion no later than A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians, Galatians) and said he preached the same to those in Corinth in A.D. 51, or within twenty-one years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death may be alluded to in Q [a hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke], which may be contemporary to Paul. It appears numerous times in the kerygma of the oral formulas. The earliest report of Jesus’ death is found in the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Virtually all scholars who have written on the subject hold that Paul here provides tradition about Jesus that he received from others. There is likewise widespread agreement that it was composed very early, reflected what was being taught by the Jerusalem apostles, and is the oldest extant tradition pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. It is really quite amazing to think that we are probably reading what was taught by the original disciples of Jesus.

A third evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details. Earlier we observed that a number of accounts existed of Jewish martyrs who acted bravely under circumstances of extreme torture and execution. In light of these, reports of a weaker Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion could cause embarrassment in contrast. . . .

For this reason, we get a sense that in the canonical Gospels we are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death, even if Luke may have cleaned up or omitted some of those embarrassing details, and John all of them, and even if some embellishments are present. Accordingly, the embarrassing elements in the Passion Narratives weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels. These include, most importantly in our investigation, Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

What are some of the other peripheral details in the Passion Narratives that lend credence to the death of Jesus by crucifixion?

Lucian reports of crowds following those on their way to being crucified and renders plausible Luke’s statement that a crowd of people followed Jesus on his way to being crucified. John reports that because it was the day of preparation for the Passover, the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove from their crosses the bodies of Jesus and of the two thieves crucified with him so that they would not remain there on the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request and ordered that their legs be broken in order to expedite death. When they came to break the legs of Jesus, the soldiers noticed that he was already dead and instead pierced his side with a spear, upon which blood and water came out. . . . Breaking the legs of crucified victims is also reported by [ancient Roman orator] Cicero and the [third century apocryphal] Gospel of Peter. In the latter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would actually suffer longer. The skeletal remains of a crucified victim named Yehohanan ben Hagakol were discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. Of interest is that one of his shins had been smashed, although it has also been theorized that this occurred when removing his corpse from the cross.

Licona continues:

The Romans often left crucified victims on their crosses for some time after they had died in order to become food for birds and dogs. However, Josephus provides an interesting report that indicates Jerusalem was an exception. Two or three years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, mercenaries for Rome killed some Jewish high priests and did not permit their burial. Josephus adds that until then the Jews had taken great care in their burial of the dead, burying the crucified prior to sunset. . . .

John reports that when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, rather than break his legs, they pierced him in order to provide some ‘death insurance.’ This too has plausibility, given Quintilian’s statement: Cruces succiduntur, percussos sepeliri carnifex non vetat. (As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.)


Is Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Trial a Fictional Invention? Part 2


James A. Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , provides additional thoughts:

[T]he trial may have involved illegalities. Illegal trials and perversions of justice have occurred throughout human history in all societies (including ‘Christian’), and this trial may well have been such an instance. No injustice should be excused, but first-century Jews should not be condemned beyond all others for their error.

Brooks also offers the possibility that

what Mark described in chap. 14 was not a formal trial but an informal hearing. Some have compared it to a police interrogation following an arrest or to a grand jury inquiry. Therefore none of the prescriptions of the Mishna [Sanhedrin] would be applicable. According to one explanation of [Mark] 15:1, a formal trial was held the next morning. Therefore this explanation could have some validity, but confidence about it is elusive.

John Grassmick, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , explains the actions of the Jewish authorities in the following way:

The 71-member Sanhedrin (cf. comments on Mark 8:31), including the presiding high priest, was hastily assembled in an upstairs room (cf. 14:66) for a plenary night session. This was an ‘informal’ trial that required a ‘formal’ ratification after dawn (cf. 15:1) to satisfy strict Jewish legal procedure allowing trials only in the daytime. A quorum consisted of 23 members (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1. 6) but on this occasion the majority were probably there even though it was around 3 a.m. on Nisan 15 (Friday), a feast day.

This hasty night meeting was deemed necessary because: (1) In Jewish criminal law it was customary to hold a trial immediately after arrest. (2) Roman legal trials were usually held shortly after sunrise (cf. 15:1) so the Sanhedrin needed a binding verdict by daybreak in order to get the case to Pilate early. (3) With Jesus finally in custody they did not want to delay proceedings, thereby arousing opposition to His arrest. Actually they had already determined to kill Him (cf. 14:1–2); their only problem was getting evidence that would justify it (cf. v. 55). Perhaps also they wished to have the Romans crucify Jesus to avoid the people’s blaming the Sanhedrin for His death.

Some have questioned the legality of a capital trial on a feast day in light of certain Rabbinic legal ordinances. However, the Rabbis justified the trial and execution of serious offenders on a major feast day. That way, they argued, ‘all the people will hear and be afraid’ (Deut. 17:13; cf. Deut. 21:21; cf. tdnt, s.v. ‘pascha,’ 5:899–900).

In summary, there are serious questions about the applicability of the Mishnah Sanhedrin to the time of Jesus’ trial. Even if the rules from this document did apply, there were numerous extenuating circumstances that could have caused the Jewish Supreme Council to break the rules. Therefore, the fact that some of the procedures called for in this third-century document were not followed does not, in and of itself, cast serious doubt on the historicity of Mark’s account.

Is Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Trial a Fictional Invention? Part 1

Many critics of the Bible have noted that Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial, in chapter fourteen of his Gospel, must be an invention. They reason that the Jewish authorities would never have conducted themselves in such a manner. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Book) , explains why:

The trial described by Mark is highly irregular according to rules listed in the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin concerning the procedure for courts conducting capital trials.

(1) Capital cases were to be tried during the daytime, and the verdict must be reached during the daytime (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(2) Trials were not to be conducted on a Sabbath eve or on the eve of a festival day (m. Sanh. 4:1; see Acts 12:4, which reports that Herod intended to bring Peter to the people after the Passover).

(3) Capital cases were supposed to begin with reasons for acquittal and not with reasons for conviction (m. Sanh. 4:1). Attempts were to be made to find witnesses and arguments for the defense. If on the way to stoning someone should say, ‘I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal,’ or even if the accused does so, they bring him back four or five times. The herald was to cry: ‘Such a one, the son of such a one is going to be stoned for he committed such or such an offense. Such and such are witnesses against him. If any man knoweth aught in favor of his acquittal let him come and plead it’ (m. Sanh. 5:4). A later rabbinic tradition imagines that this was indeed done in Jesus’ case: On the Eve of Passover Yeshu [one text adds the Nazarean] was hanged. Forty days before his execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover!

(4) Verdicts of acquittal could be reached on the same day, but verdicts of conviction must be confirmed on the following day after a night’s sleep (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(5) Condemnation required the evidence of two witnesses. When witnesses disagreed, their evidence was null and void (m. Sanh. 5:2). If they were found to be false witnesses, they were required to suffer the ‘same death-penalty to which the accused had been made liable.’

(6) The Mishnah assumes that the Sanhedrin met in the inner courts of temple, the Chamber of Hewn Stone, not in the high priest’s home.”

Mark’s account of the proceedings against Jesus portray a hastily gathered group of religious leaders holding a blatantly biased “trial” in the middle of the night. How do we square this account with the rules recorded in Sanhedrin? Strauss argues that the rules written in Sanhedrin may have never been in force at the time of Jesus’ trial.

[T]his Mishnaic tractate, compiled around A.D. 220, reflects the circumstances and scruples of a later era. The laws regarding capital cases in Mishnah Sanhedrin may not be representative of the historical procedure for the Sanhedrin in the first century or, for that matter, any period. They are idealized and theoretical, assuming, for example, that the king rules, not a high priest under the thumb of a Roman governor. The laws for the Sanhedrin are perceived through the lens of the wishful thinking of the post-war rabbis who compiled the oral law—this is the way it should be when the temple is restored, and it is assumed that this is the way it must have always been.

Even if these rules were in effect, Strauss argues that the Jewish Supreme Council was dealing with special circumstances.

A Sanhedrin controlled by the high priest was also unlikely to follow Pharisaic procedures. If it were an informal hearing gathering evidence to bring to the governor, it would not need to observe legal formalities. According to Deuteronomy 18:20, a false prophet is to be killed immediately—even on a feast day. The chief priests considered Jesus such a serious threat that they made every effort to eliminate him by getting the Roman governor to put him to death and discredit him forever with death by crucifixion.


How Does Jesus’ Prediction of the Destruction of Jerusalem Affect the Dating of Luke’s Gospel?

Liberal and skeptical scholars have long noted that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 19:42-44 prove that the Gospel according to Luke must have been written after AD 70. How else, they argue, could the writer of the Gospel known about the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem? In fact, since most scholars believe Mark was the first gospel written, and Mark also mentions the destruction of Jerusalem, then all the gospels must have been written after AD 70.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, writing at Catholic Answers, frames the issue this way:

With their rationalist presuppositions firmly in place, modern biblical critics concluded that the entire New Testament could not have been composed before the year 70. The reasoning went like this: ‘Mark’s Gospel is the earliest Gospel. Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. We know that people can’t foretell the future. Therefore this must have been written after the event and made to sound like a prophecy.’ This one conclusion—based on the assumption that seeing the future is impossible—is the basis for the continuing idea that the New Testament is a late-invented document.

Once this ‘fact’ was in place, every other piece of evidence relating to the dating of the Gospels had to conform to this single conclusion. So, if evidence was found that a particular Gospel was written earlier than A.D. 70, it could not be so, because everyone ‘knew’ that it all had to be written after A.D. 70. The authorship of the Gospels also had to be in question. If most the apostles died before A.D. 70, then it was impossible for them to be the authors of the Gospels.

What the critics fail to understand is that there are at least two other possibilities. First, Jesus may have been making an educated guess that Jerusalem would be destroyed due to her rebellious tendencies. The description of the siege in Luke 19 is applicable to almost any siege of a major city in the ancient near east.

Second, and more likely, Jesus was making a supernatural prediction. He could have had a supernatural vision of the destruction of Jerusalem which he then reported to his disciples, who then wrote the prediction down.

The only way critics can dismiss this second possibility is to deny the possibility that Jesus was given a vision of the future. But how can they possibly know that Jesus could not have received a vision from God? They cannot.

For many critical scholars, it is a philosophical presupposition that miracles cannot occur, that the supernatural does not exist, that a Creator God does not exist (i.e., that theism is false). But if a Creator God who interacts with the universe He created does exist, then it is entirely possible that Jesus received a vision from that God. Jesus repeatedly claimed to be an emissary from God, to have a special relationship with God, so if anyone was going to receive knowledge of future events, it would be Jesus.

In brief, the gospels cannot be dated by first assuming that theism is false. If there are good reasons to believe that theism is true (and there are many), miracles are possible. Since the New Testament is full of miracles, a scholar looking to date the NT documents simply cannot ignore the possibility that at least some of the miracles recorded actually did occur.

Was Mark the First Gospel Written?

Although we may never know for sure, the majority of biblical scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that the other Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, used Mark as a source. Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), why this view is the dominant one.

Markan priority appears to be the most prudent position for several reasons: (1) Mark’s literary style sometimes lacks the sophistication and polish often seen in Matthew and Luke. This phenomenon is more easily explained in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvement upon Mark, rather than Markan degradation of Matthean and Lukan style.

(2) In the Markan Gospel Jesus and the disciples are sometimes portrayed in a manner that appears undignified. More often than not these potentially embarrassing passages are touched up or omitted altogether by Matthew and Luke. Again, it is easier to explain the phenomena in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvements upon Mark, rather than the reverse.

(3) The phenomena of agreements and disagreements among the Synoptic Gospels are more easily explained in reference to Markan priority. Among other things, we observe that where there is no Mark to follow (e.g., no infancy narrative, no ‘Q’ material) this is where Matthew and Luke diverge from one another. This observation is more easily explained in terms of Markan priority and Matthew’s and Luke’s independence from one another than in terms of Mark writing last and making use of Matthew and Luke. Markan priority also avoids the problem of trying to explain Luke’s inconsistent use of Matthew.

(4) The small amount of material that is unique to the Gospel of Mark also supports Markan priority. This material consists of 1: 1; 2: 27; 3: 20– 21; 4: 26– 29; 7: 2– 4, 32– 37; 8: 22– 26; 9: 29, 48– 49; 13: 33– 37; 14: 51– 52. In reviewing this material we should ask which explanation seems most probable, that Mark added it or that Matthew and Luke found it in Mark and chose to omit it. The nature of the material supports the latter alternative, for it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke chose to omit the flight of the naked youth (14: 51– 52); the odd saying about being ‘salted with fire’ (9: 48– 49); the strange miracle where Jesus effects healing in two stages (8: 22– 26); the even stranger miracle where Jesus puts his fingers in a man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue (7: 32– 37); and the episode where Jesus is regarded as mad and his family attempts to restrain him (3: 20– 22). If we accept the Griesbach-Farmer Hypothesis [that Matthew was written first], we would then have to explain why Mark would choose to add these odd, potentially embarrassing materials, only to omit the Sermon on the Mount/ Plain, the Lord’s Prayer, and numerous other teachings and parables found in the larger Gospels.

(5) The final consideration that adds weight to the probability of Markan priority has to do with the results of the respective hypotheses. The true test of any hypothesis is its effectiveness. In biblical studies a theory should aid the exegetical task. The theory of Markan priority has provided just this kind of aid. Not only has Synoptic interpretation been materially advanced because of the conclusion, and now widespread assumption, of Markan priority, but the development of critical methods oriented to Gospel research, such as Form and Redaction Criticism, which have enjoyed success, has also presupposed Markan priority.

In countless studies, whether dealing with this or that pericope, or treating one of the Synoptic Gospels in its entirety, it has been recognized over and over again that Matthew and Luke make the greatest sense as interpretations of Mark; but Mark makes little sense as a conflation and interpretation of Matthew and Luke. The evidence is compelling that Mark represents the oldest surviving account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. What sources the evangelist Mark made use of, if any, will in all probability remain a mystery. That he made use of some written material seems likely. That he made use of some eyewitness testimony is also probable; it cannot be ruled out.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 3 we finished looking at Richard Bauckham’s second reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels. Bauckham concludes with the third of his three reasons. About the first two reasons, Bauckham explains that these

two lines of argument establish that as soon as the Gospels circulated around the churches they had author’s names attached to them, even though such names were not part of the text of the Gospels. Our further question about anonymity concerns the contents of the Gospels: do the Gospel-writers present the traditions they preserve as derived from named eyewitnesses or as anonymous community tradition to which no specific names could be attached? Here we need only to resume the evidence we discussed in chapters 3– 8:

(i) Where the names of relatively minor characters are given in the Gospels, the reason is usually that the tradition to which the name is attached derived from that person.

(ii) In all three Synoptic Gospels, the explanation of the care with which the list of the Twelve has been preserved and recorded is that they were known to be the official body of eyewitnesses who had formulated a body of traditions on which the three Synoptic Gospels depend.

(iii) Three of the Gospels — Mark, Luke, and John — deploy a literary device, the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, to indicate the most extensive eyewitness source( s) of their Gospels. Mark’s use of the device points to Peter (indicating that Mark’s traditions are those of the Twelve in the form that Peter told and supplemented). Luke also acknowledges Peter as the most extensive eyewitness source of his narrative, but by making also a secondary use of the device he indicates that the group of women disciples of Jesus were also an important eyewitness source of his Gospel. John’s Gospel plays on Mark’s use of this device in order to stake its claim for the Beloved Disciple as an eyewitness as important as — even, in a sense, more important than — Peter.

What do all of these arguments prove about the Gospels?

These arguments show not simply that, as a matter of fact, the traditions in the Gospels have eyewitness sources but, very importantly, that the Gospels themselves indicate their own eyewitness sources. Once we recognize these ways in which the Gospels indicate their sources, we can see that they pass on traditions not in the name of the anonymous collective but in the name of the specific eyewitnesses who were responsible for these traditions.

What Bauckham has said is incredibly important. He has made persuasive arguments that the contents of the four Gospels derive from eyewitness sources and that these sources were well-known by the early Christian community. The idea that the Gospels are an anonymous collection of legends and tales that were eventually compiled into written accounts just does not stand up from the evidence.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 we finished looking at Richard Bauckham’s first reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels. Bauckham continues with the second of his three reasons, the traditional titles of the Gospels.

Throughout the early manuscript tradition, from c. 200 onward, the only titles for all four canonical Gospels are in the form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” (euangelion kata  .  .  .), with the exception of manuscripts Vaticanus and Sinaiticus which have the short form “According to.  .  .  .”

Martin Hengel has argued persuasively, not only that the longer form was the earlier form, but also that the meaning is not “the Gospel writing written according to the tradition that derives from Mark,” but “the Gospel (i.e., the one and only gospel message) according to Mark’s account.” The usual genitive for the author’s name has been avoided in favor of the very unusual “according to  .  .  .” (kata  .  .  .) formula, in order to “express the fact that here the gospel was narrated in the particular version of the evangelist in question.”

So why is this fact important?

Each of these titles therefore presupposes the existence of other Gospel writings (not necessarily all three of the other canonical ones), from which the Gospel in question needed to be distinguished. A Christian community that knew only one Gospel writing would not have needed to entitle it in this way. Even a Gospel writer who knew other Gospels to be circulating around the churches could have himself given this form of title to his work. (In the first century CE, most authors gave their books titles, but the practice was not universal.)

Why would the early Christian communities need or want to distinguish between the different Gospel accounts?

Whether or not any of these titles originate from the authors themselves, the need for titles that distinguished one Gospel from another would arise as soon as any Christian community had copies of more than one in its library and was reading more than one in its worship meetings. For the former purpose, it would have been necessary to identify books externally, when, for example, they were placed side-by-side on a shelf. For this purpose a short title with the author’s name would be written either on the outside of the scroll or on a papyrus or parchment tag that hung down when the scroll was placed horizontally on a shelf.

In the case of codices, “labels appeared on all possible surfaces: edges, covers, and spines.” In this sense also, therefore, Gospels would not have been anonymous when they first circulated around the churches. A church receiving its first copy of one such would have received with it information, at least in oral form, about its authorship and then used its author’s name when labeling the book and when reading from it in worship.

So when did the titles start getting attached to the various Gospels?

Hengel argues that, given that the Gospels must have acquired titles at a very early stage, the titles that survive in the earliest manuscript tradition (c. 200 onward) are these “original” titles.  In favor of this is the fact that no evidence exists that these Gospels were ever known by other names. The unusual form of the titles and the universal use of them as soon as we have any evidence suggest that they originated at an early stage.

Once the Gospels were widely known it would be much more difficult for a standard form of title for all four Gospels to have come into universal use. Helmut Koester, who thinks Marcion was the first person to use the word “Gospel” for a book, rejects Hengel’s argument that the full form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” could have been used to entitle the Gospels already early in the second century, though he does not necessarily deny that the ascriptions to authors may be early. However, Graham Stanton supports Hengel’s argument on the basis of other early instances of the term “Gospel” (euangelion) used for a written Gospel.

Whether or not the actual form of title, “Gospel according to  .  .  .” was already used when the Gospels first circulated around the churches, it is very likely that the ascription of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John dates from this very early stage, since this is the only way that one of the Gospels could have been distinguished from another. Our evidence offers no alternative way in which this could have been done. Again the universality of these ascriptions of authorship and the fact that they seem never to have been disputed indicate that they became established usage as soon as the Gospels were circulating.

In part 4, we will look at Bauckham’s third reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels.