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The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mgton » 04 Feb 2009, 03:54

I was thinking about this today. And keep in mind I know nothing about New Testament scholarship. From what I can tell, Mark is the earliest gospel, dated somewhere around 70 AD. Let's suppose that Mark is, instead, written ten years after Christ's death. Assuming that, how likely is it that the sayings of Jesus are accurately recorded? If ten years had passed since I was walking the shores of Galilee with Jesus, I would have a really hard time writing down exactly what Jesus said on this or that day. I think a very dramatic saying would stick with me, but all the little conversations would totally slip my mind.

I had a teacher who I recently took three classes with (about a year and a half of time), and if you asked me to write down some of the things he said ten years later, I simply couldn't do it. I can only think of maybe a page of stuff right now, and I was just in his class in December.

I've never seen this addressed in apologetics, but of course I haven't looked very hard either. Would the response be that the Gospels are inspired and so Christians can rest assured that Jesus' sayings are accurate? Or am I just wrong to assume that the Gospel writers couldn't have remembered all these subtle sayings of Jesus? Remember that I'm assuming only ten years have passed when Mark is writing his Gospel, but in reality it's probably around 30 or 40 years for Mark, and even more for the others.

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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mitchellmckain » 04 Feb 2009, 10:33

mgton wrote:I had a teacher who I recently took three classes with (about a year and a half of time), and if you asked me to write down some of the things he said ten years later, I simply couldn't do it. I can only think of maybe a page of stuff right now, and I was just in his class in December.


Now suppose your teacher immediately required you to teach others as he has taught you. This also was not an era of information and entertainment overload. But in any case, if you had any teaching experience, you would not find this so doubtful. However long it was, these were things that were told and retold by people who spent their time going place to place to do so.

By the way, how many times do you need to hear and sing a song in order to remember the words?
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby Karen » 04 Feb 2009, 13:45

What mitch said. The oral tradition was very strong before print made its appearance: very few people, as compared to today, were literate, and stories or sacred texts were mostly heard rather than read. This is true of all sorts of ancient literature:

Wikipedia wrote:That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings. Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).


Google "oral tradition" and "gospels" and you'll get a wealth of information.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby AllanS » 04 Feb 2009, 21:00

Everyone talks of oral tradition as if these people were primitive and ignorant. Perhaps they ran their businesses, kept records for taxation, and sent their orders and accounts by word of mouth too!

Jesus could read, yet he was a poor small-town carpenter who spoke with a funny accent.

That aside, I'd not be surprised to find a professional scribe or two in Jesus merry throng. Joanna was wealthy and upper-class. If she had truly believed Jesus was the messiah, wouldn't she have arranged to have someone jot things down? What could be more natural for "people of the book"?

Or after Pentecost. The 12 suddenly have 5000 to teach. That's over 400 each! And there were more the day after. Might one of these converts have been literate? Is it so utterly improbable that some bright spark might have said, "Hey! Let's write it down!"

Speaking of Joanna. An ossuary was found a few years ago inscribed "Joanna granddaughter of Theophilus High Priest". (Theophilus was High Priest from 37 to 41 AD.)

Some observations.

1) Luke writes his gospel to Most Excellent Theophilus to confirm what he'd already been taught. Taught by whom?
2) Luke (alone amongst the gospel writers) mentions Joanna. Twice. Being the wife of Herod's steward, she's upper-class and rich. She's also found with Mary and Mary, witnessing the resurrection. Luke highlights her name by placing her between the two Marys.
3) Luke (alone amongst the gospel writers) tells the story of Zechariah (a priest), and Anna and Simeon (in the Temple). (Theophilus would have known them.) He also recounts Jesus' circumcision and Mary's purification (in the Temple), and Jesus' debates as a boy (in the temple).
4) Caiaphas (Theophilus' brother-in-law) is not mentioned by name in Luke's gospel.

Here's the scenario. Joanna is a believer, a witness to the resurrection. She tells her grandfather. He wants to read an objective and orderly account of the whole affair from someone more reliable than a fisherman from Galilee. Joanna replies, "How about an educated Greek doctor?"

Luke's account to the High Priest (or ex-High Priest) would have been one of the first official Church documents, and explain why it was held in sufficient regard to have become canonical.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby Karen » 04 Feb 2009, 21:39

AllanS wrote:Everyone talks of oral tradition as if these people were primitive and ignorant.


They do? From where in my post (or mitch's) did you get that impression?

(Hi Allan!)
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mgton » 04 Feb 2009, 23:50

Those are good responses. I'm going to have to study up on ancient oral tradition.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby AllanS » 05 Feb 2009, 02:24

Karen wrote:
AllanS wrote:Everyone talks of oral tradition as if these people were primitive and ignorant.


They do? From where in my post (or mitch's) did you get that impression?

(Hi Allan!)


Hi Karen:)

Primitive and ignorant only inasmuch as they cannot read or write.

What did you think of Theophilus and Joanna?
“And turn their grief into song?" he replied. "That would be a gracious act and a good beginning."

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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby Karen » 05 Feb 2009, 04:21

AllanS wrote:Primitive and ignorant only inasmuch as they cannot read or write.


That's not primitive or ignorant, it's just illiterate. That word has negative connotations now, because in our society one is expected to be literate, but it was a fact of life for most in the ancient world, and later. I have a wonderful book by Harry Gamble called Books and Readers in the Early Church, and in it he says that "...throughout the entire period of classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman imperial civilization, the extent of literacy was about 10 percent and never exceeded 15 to 20 percent of the population as a whole."

AllanS wrote:What did you think of Theophilus and Joanna?


It's a nice idea, but I don't think this scenario is likely:

AllanS wrote:If she had truly believed Jesus was the messiah, wouldn't she have arranged to have someone jot things down? What could be more natural for "people of the book"?


Here is what being a 'people of the book' meant :

Harry Gamble wrote:...by the first century C.E. Judaism had developed a strong interest in basic literacy, but the aim of education in those settings was not literacy as such but the ability to participate in Jewish life, so the capacity to read and understand scripture, especially the Torah, stood at the center of instruction. Writing remained a professional skill separately acquired, and far fewer Jews could write than could read.


In other words, Torah was paramount - it's why one became literate, and really for no other reason. Writing down what living people said was not a 'natural' thing to do in that society. I think it more likely that Joanna, and many other witnesses to Jesus' life and ministry, would have remembered and passed down his sayings orally. But who knows? Anything is possible.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby archenland_knight » 05 Feb 2009, 22:42

My understanding was that all Hebrew Children, male and female, of Christ's time were taught to read classical Hebrew well enough to read the Torah and to write it as well. Of course, Classical Hebrew was no longer the spoken language of the day, but in ancient times, it was not uncommon for a society's written language to differ from their spoken language. I think they were also taught basic arithmetic.

Before you tell me I'm wrong, let me admit that I might be. I will have to look it up and get back to you.

However, I agree with the basic ideas put forth here. The apostles began teaching what Jesus had said right from the beginning. So, the chance of them "forgetting" were pretty slim. Also, we have the promise of The Holy Spirit's work in helping us to remember Christ's teachings:

John 14:25-26 wrote: JN 14:25 "All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.


So, yes, we have the assurance that The Spirit will bring to the Apostle's mind ... and to ours as well once we've studied His word ... all that Christ taught.

Now, the idea that Mark's gospel is the oldest is not universally accepted. There are others who believe the oldest to have been Matthew's gospel. Matthew, of course, being a Roman tax collector, would have been able to read and write fairly well. History tells us that he produced his Gospel in both Hebrew and Greek. However, only manuscripts of the Greek have ever been found.

And then there's the theory that there is a great "lost" gospel, written in fact by Matthew in Hebrew, which contained all the "source" material for what we today call "The Gospel of Matthew" as well as the Gospels of both Mark and Luke.

Persoanlly, I don't adhere to that theory, but I would never oppose or support it as a matter of doctrine. I believe that Matthew wrote His Gospel from his own recollections and the inspiration of The Holy Spirit. I believe, as do many others, that "Mark" (i.e. "John Mark"), not being one of the original 12 disciples but being related to Peter essentially recorded Peter's teachings. You could essentially rename "The Gospel According to Mark" and call it, "The Gospel According to Peter as Told To Mark". Some even postulate that Peter dictated this Gospel outright, but I'm not sure I buy that. It has too much of a Roman flair for that, and Joh Mark, as you know, was 50% Roman. It could well be the product of Mark sitting down with Peter and asking direct questions.

Luke, being the educated physician that He was, wrote from painstaking research and the Inspriation of the Holy Spirit. Why does he record things that only Mary would have known? He talked to her, obviously! It is often supposed that he got much of his information from Paul, but even then he would have filled in any gaps by talking to others.

I really don't care which of those came "first". They came. That's what's important.

John, too, wrote from what He had experienced and heard from Jesus. It's pretty well accepted that his Gospel came last. And, inspired by The Holy Spirit as to the particulars to include, he produced exactly what God wanted him to produce, different though it may have been from the other three Gospels.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby Karen » 05 Feb 2009, 23:20

archenland_knight wrote:My understanding was that all Hebrew Children, male and female, of Christ's time were taught to read classical Hebrew well enough to read the Torah and to write it as well.


One thing to bear in mind is that while there were certainly schools at that time, not all Jewish children attended them. The ideal was to be taught by one's father, as it says in Deut 6:6-7 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

The Jewish Encyclopedia says (emphasis mine):

The scribes at first restricted their educational activities to adults, delivering free lectures in synagogues and schools, while the education of children remained, as in olden times, in the hands of their fathers. But as boys often lacked this advantage, the state employed teachers in Jerusalem, to whose care the children from the provinces were entrusted; and as these did not suffice, schools were also established in the country towns. This arrangement must probably be referred to an ordinance of R. Simon b. Sheṭaḥ, who was one of the presidents of the Sanhedrin during the last century of the Jewish state. These district schools were intended only for youths of sixteen and seventeen years of age who could provide for themselves away from home. The high priest Joshua b. Gamla instituted public schools for boys six and seven years of age in all the cities of Palestine by the end of first century, and on this account he was praised as the man who prevented teaching in Israel from being altogether neglected...

The first bet ha-midrash [high school] of which there is authentic record is the one in which Shemaiah and Abtalion taught, and which Hillel, when a youth, could attend only after having paid admission-fee to the janitor.


Hillel was a contemporary of Jesus. After the Temple was destroyed in 70, Judaism began to change: worship transferred to the local synagogues, which often doubled as schools, and gradually more and more people became literate. The Talmud took shape in the 2nd c. and beyond, as the written word overtook the oral tradition.

archenland_knight wrote:Before you tell me I'm wrong, let me admit that I might be. I will have to look it up and get back to you.


I'll be interested to see what you find as well. :smile:
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mgton » 06 Feb 2009, 00:26

So, here are some of the arguments for the accuracy of Jesus' sayings (given the considerable passage of time):

(1) Superior memory of the ancients.
(2) Jesus' sayings were actually written down before the gospels.
(3) The disciples had to teach it, so they knew it.
(4) Divine inspiration assures the accuracy.

I think (1) is the only substantial response. If it's true, then it goes along way to helping establish Jesus' sayings as accurate. If there is evidence of (2), I want to know about it. (2) is surely possible, though. (3) really depends on (1). By itself, I don't think (3) does anything to help the case. For given (possibly) 40 years time, only the short sayings and the parables would likely be very accurate; it's hard to believe the long sermons, which are quite subtle in many ways, could be repeated time and time again without some sort of distortion. Again, if you assume (1) is true, then (3) is much better off. By itself, (4) begs the question, but perhaps a person who has had some sort of religious experience confirming that God exists and Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God could appeal to (4). I don't know; that might be a little far-fetched.

But even if the sayings of Jesus, as we know them, are not entirely accurate, that doesn't mean that God doesn't exist, or that Christianity is false, or that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, or that Jesus isn't the Son of God. None of that follows. I guess what would follow is that some serious work would need to be done in establishing some sort of criteria to determine which sayings are likely to be accurate and which are not. That might be pretty difficult. But in some instances (e.g., the "palace conversation" between Jesus and Pilate [John 19:8]), I don't think it would be hard to establish the reasonableness of at least a sort of agnosticism about the accuracy of the passage.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby Karen » 06 Feb 2009, 02:36

mgton wrote:I guess what would follow is that some serious work would need to be done in establishing some sort of criteria to determine which sayings are likely to be accurate and which are not. That might be pretty difficult.


The Jesus Seminar has tried to do just that, although from a very skeptical POV.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mitchellmckain » 06 Feb 2009, 03:57

mgton wrote:So, here are some of the arguments for the accuracy of Jesus' sayings (given the considerable passage of time):

(1) Superior memory of the ancients.
(2) Jesus' sayings were actually written down before the gospels.
(3) The disciples had to teach it, so they knew it.
(4) Divine inspiration assures the accuracy.


1 is just nonsense. I don't believe that for a second. I have nothing but contempt for this medieval human decay theory.
2 has been well known for quite some time. Similarities in the synoptic texts indicate a source document from which these documents took some material. This theoretical document is often refered to as Q.
3 is the correct answer. Anyone who is actually a teacher would have no doubt of this.
4 Divine guidance does far more than just insure accuracy. Divine guidance would even use errors to His own purpose. I certainly believe that the real writer of the Bible is God Himself and the human authors were just His instruments just as was the history itself that they were reporting.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mgton » 06 Feb 2009, 04:39

mitchellmckain wrote:
mgton wrote:So, here are some of the arguments for the accuracy of Jesus' sayings (given the considerable passage of time):

(1) Superior memory of the ancients.
(2) Jesus' sayings were actually written down before the gospels.
(3) The disciples had to teach it, so they knew it.
(4) Divine inspiration assures the accuracy.


1 is just nonsense. I don't believe that for a second. I have nothing but contempt for this medieval human decay theory.
2 has been well known for quite some time. Similarities in the synoptic texts indicate a source document from which these documents took some material. This theoretical document is often refered to as Q.
3 is the correct answer. Anyone who is actually a teacher would have no doubt of this.
4 Divine guidance does far more than just insure accuracy. Divine guidance would even use errors to His own purpose. I certainly believe that the real writer of the Bible is God Himself and the human authors were just His instruments just as was the history itself that they were reporting.


Thanks for the opinions, I guess. But if you have reasons for saying what you say, then by all means.
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Re: The sayings of Jesus and the dating of the Gospels

Postby mgton » 06 Feb 2009, 04:42

Karen wrote:
mgton wrote:I guess what would follow is that some serious work would need to be done in establishing some sort of criteria to determine which sayings are likely to be accurate and which are not. That might be pretty difficult.


The Jesus Seminar has tried to do just that, although from a very skeptical POV.


Yeah, I noticed that too. I don't particularly like agreeing with the Jesus Seminar folks about anything. Honestly, the only one of them I'm familiar with is Crossan, and I've been unimpressed with his reasoning.
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