The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Part 1 of 2)

Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52)

1. Introduction

If anyone wants to learn more about Jesus and the early Church, they open up the New Testament — but how reliable is it? Does it accurately recount Jesus’ life and teachings, as well as the history of the early Church?

In this two-part series, we will look into the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. 

Unlike other books of the New Testament (e.g. Paul’s letters, the other pastoral epistles, and the book of Revelation), the Gospels and Acts are historiographic writings. The Gospels are ancient biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, and biography, as a literary genre, is a subtype of historiography. On the other hand, Acts is a work of ancient historiography about the early Church. Since the Gospels and Acts are historiographic writings, this series will focus on them.

In part one of this series, we will look into what we should expect from the Gospels and Acts as historical sources based on multiple factors — their genre, dating, authorship, the impact of disciples, the capabilities and frailties of memory, oral tradition, etc. These factors will affect how we view the Gospels and Acts as historical sources, as they have implications on historical reliability. For part one of this series, I draw extensively from Craig Keener’s Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019). Keener is one of the best New Testament scholars in the world today. He has developed a reputation as a thorough and meticulous researcher and has written leading commentaries on Acts and John.

In part two of this series, we will cover the question of historical reliability by looking into the contents of the Gospels and Acts. We will look into how well the authors of the Gospels and Acts knew local geography, the extent to which their writings reflect local color, and other indicators that point to their reliability as historical sources. In part two, I will draw on the works of a number of scholars such as Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, Peter Williams, and Simon Gathercole.

As a preliminary matter, let us define a number of important terms that will be used in this series:

Synoptic Gospels – These refer to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” because of their similarities in terms of the stories they recount about Jesus, sequence, and wording. The Synoptics are differentiated from the gospel of John, which contains a lot of unique material not found in the Synoptics and differs from the Synoptic tradition in significant ways. 

Two-source hypothesis – The two-source hypothesis is the solution to the Synoptic problem (i.e. what is the literary relationship of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to each other) that is held by the majority of scholars today. According to the hypothesis, Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke wrote next, drawing substantially from Mark in writing their Gospels and another shared source called “Q”. Matthew and Luke also drew on their own exclusive sources which are referred to as “M” and “L”. John is not included in the two-source hypothesis because most scholars believe that its author wrote independently from the Synoptics. 

Standard dating – This refers to the dating of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles that is accepted by most scholars today. According to the standard dating, Mark was written around 70 AD, Matthew and Luke were written around 80-85 AD and John was written around 90-95 AD.[1] In this dating scheme, Matthew and Luke are dated 10-15 years after Mark in order to give enough time for Mark’s gospel to be copied and circulated across the empire, and find its way into the hands of Matthew and Luke. As for Acts of the Apostles, most scholars affirm a date in the 80s AD, probably within the same period as the composition of the Gospel of Luke, 80-85 AD.[2]

Collective memory – The shared memory of a community. It is distinguished from individual memory.

In addition to defining these terms, let me lay out other background information.

To start, I want to point out that it is a historical fact that Jesus was a miracle worker. Virtually all scholars, including skeptical scholars, affirm that Jesus was a healer and exorcist, who performed deeds that were viewed by his contemporaries as “miracles”. The disagreement among scholars is not over whether Jesus performed miracles or not, but over how these miracles are to be interpreted (i.e. healings of organic illnesses and therefore pointing to divine causation, healings of psychosomatic illnesses, or the result of the placebo effect). Jesus’ being a miracle worker will be casually mentioned later in this article, so I want to ensure that readers know that this aspect of Jesus’ life is not disputed beforehand (skeptics who do not know this will wonder why I casually assume the historicity of Jesus’ miracles if I do not clarify this!).

I also want to encourage readers to pick up scholar Brant Pitre’s The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, if they want to investigate the reliability of the Gospels further after reading this series. Pitre provides important information on authorship and dating that I will not discuss here (see footnote 3 though for some basic information).[3]

Readers may also want to check out my blog post, “Advances in New Testament Scholarship“, before or after reading this series. That blog post compliments this two-part series very well.

Having defined our terms and laid down certain background information, let us now begin our discussion on the historical reliability of the New Testament and go through part one of our series. As mentioned earlier, part one focuses on what we should expect from the Gospels and Acts as historical sources based on multiple factors.

We will begin part one by discussing the views of scholarship on the genres of the Gospels and Acts, as well as go through a brief history of how scholarship changed its views regarding the genre of the Gospels in particular (section 2). Then, we will go through a quick course on ancient biography (section 3), focusing on details relevant to the subsequent discussion on the Gospels as ancient biographies (section 4). After our discussion on the Gospels, we will discuss Acts as a work of ancient historiography (section 5). After this, we will end with a conclusion on the Gospels and Acts as historical sources (section 6), summarizing the key findings of our discussion and answering the question: “What should we expect from these sources in terms of preserving reliable information about Jesus and the early Christian Church?”.

2. The Gospels as Greco-Roman Biography; Acts as Historiography

Prior to the 1990s, a large segment of New Testament scholarship viewed the Gospels as belonging to the genre of “sui-generis”, a genre unique to the Gospels. This sui generis was viewed as a type of mythology.[4] Since then, however, there has been a great swing in scholarly opinion. Today, the consensus view among scholars is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography, and within the family of Greco-Roman biography in particular.[5] This shift in scholarly opinion was initiated by Charles Talbert and later cemented by Richard Burridge’s influential work “What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography” (1992).

Burridge was a classicist who set out to disprove the thesis first proposed by Talbert and a few other American scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography. During the course of his research, however, Burridge reversed his opinion, and his work would go on to change the world of scholarship on the subject. As scholar Craig Keener comments, it was Burridge’s “forceful Cambridge monograph that largely effected the paradigm shift in Gospels studies”, showing how Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John belong to the genre of ancient biography.[6]

As for Acts of the Apostles, the consensus view among scholars today is that it belongs to the genre of ancient historiography.[7]

3. Ancient Biography

Before we proceed to our discussion on the Gospels, let us go through a quick course on ancient biography. The information discussed in this section will be relevant in our later discussion on the Gospels as ancient biographies.

To start off this section, let us look at the development of ancient biography.

3.1. Development

Literary genres are not static. They develop within cultures over time.

Like other literary genres, the genre of ancient biography developed. As Keener notes, a “number of generic predecessors with various degrees of biographic focus” came before what we would call full biographies.[10] These works usually differed considerably from biographies of the early empire period, especially in terms of interest in and commitment to historical accuracy.

A notable development in the genre of ancient biography before the early empire period was the emergence of the prose encomium. It must be noted, however, that these works are not considered biographies but “protobiographies”. The prose encomium was primarily encomiastic, that is, praise-oriented. As a result, Keener notes that one “should certainly not expect a balanced or always truthful picture” from these works.[11]

Moving into the Hellenistic era, biographic writing achieved the title of “bios” or life. Biographies in this period were often written about poets. These lives were typically very short (consisting of a few paragraphs) and sketchy (in the sense of lacking detail and substance). They were also often compiled with other brief biographies. Since there was very little information about poets, biographers of this era often compensated by making inferences about them from their poems.[12] This practice, of course, resulted in dubious information about the biographee. During the Hellenistic era, biographies were also written about sages and public figures. Later surviving sources suggest that Antigonus of Carystus’s “Lives of Philosophers” established a new standard for accuracy in depicting the sages of his era.[13]

Among works that have survived, biographies in the fullest sense began with Cornelius Nepos (ca. 100 BC –  24 BC), who wrote in the last generation of the Roman Republic. The flowering of ancient biography began with Nepos’ works, at least with regard to surviving or extant treatment of public figures.[14] Nepos was clearly interested in using historical information. His works provide a standard of accuracy that was missing in what we know of Hellenistic biography. With the works of Nepos, historical interest in biographies reached a range found in the early empire. Ancient biographies also assumed a three-part structure (for full-length biographic works) that differed from the continuous flow in standard historical works.[15]

The historiographic standards for ancient biography reached their peak during the early empire period, which spanned the late first century BC to the early third century AD.[16] Greco-Roman biographers such as Plutarch, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Lucian, and Jewish biographers such as Philo and Josephus, all confirm this direction. Even the lives of the poets during this period displayed a clear increase in historiographic sensitivity. As Keener notes, the early empire was the “apex of historical biography”.[17]

In late antiquity, the nature of biographical works would change from that of the early empire. Hagiography was embraced. In these works, sacred idealization of the subject became a major force and historical accuracy was not highly valued. As Keener notes, hagiography “conflates the character concern of biography with the fictional and plot concerns of the novel”.[18]

3.2. Definition and Basic Information

Ancient biography is defined as a narrative of a real individual’s life based on prior information.[19] As a genre, it is a subtype of ancient historiography.[20]

Early empire biographies, in particular, had strong historiographic commitments. Biographers during the early empire sought to communicate authentic information about their subject and not fabricate events like ancient novels (including historical novels) did.[21]

3.3. Biographies by Subjects

One organic way scholars organize ancient biographies is by subject. Ancient biographers composed works on different types of individuals: public figures like political and military figures, sages, and poets.

Biographies on different types of individuals varied in the amount of information they contained. This is because more information was available for some individuals than others. Biographies of public figures, for example, were longer than biographies of poets. They were also typically longer than biographies of sages because information about sages was less available except in schools themselves.

Overall, a person’s actions were important in ancient biographies. However, since most sages led relatively uneventful lives, biographies of sages tended to focus more on their words than on their actions.[22]

3.4. Sources Used

Since biography is a subtype of historiography, it deals in historical information. This brings us to the question: how did historical writers in antiquity garner information? What kind of sources did they seek?

Ancient historians garnered information in a number of ways: personal experience, interviewing individuals and consulting other texts (public records, histories, biographies, memoirs, etc). The ideal source of information for historians was their own experience — being an eyewitness to the events they wrote about.[21] The next preferred source was personally interviewing eyewitnesses.[23]

Investigation methods also differed among historians.

Primary research was a strength of Greek historians.[24] The Greek term often used for research or investigation, ἱστορία (historia), indicates what many from an early period regarded as historiography’s central characteristic: questioning those with firsthand knowledge then weaving their responses into a cohesive narrative. As Keener notes:

Greek historians often traveled to the locations of events and consulted those whom they considered reliable oral sources.[25]

Not all historians traveled, however. As Keener notes regarding Roman historians:

Because of senatorial records, Roman historians often had sufficient information for their interests without the need for field research, and because Romans’ interest was more in providing examples than history for its own sake, Roman historians sometimes appear less careful with facts than Greeks.[26]

3.5. Time of Writing

Time of writing or distance from the events being recounted is an important factor in historical writing.

Biographers writing within living memory of the events had access to more reliable sources than biographers writing outside living memory. Living memory is the period in which eyewitnesses or their hearers were alive.[27]

A biographer writing within living memory had access to eyewitnesses or those who heard them. Within the period of living memory, the closer in time a biographer was to the events, the greater access he had to the above sources. Reports within living memory, that is, within 80 years, at most, 100 years, are normally the most reliable.[28] According to scholars of social-memory research, in virtually any kind of society, the period of living memory spans within this period.[29]

A biographer in the early empire period also faced other issues if he was writing about a figure in the distant past. As Keener notes:

In contrast to typical biographers and historians of the early empire, some earlier orators fabricated significant information surrounding history that lay beyond living memory. Once told, such stories became part of the collective memory on which later writers might draw, knowingly or unknowingly. Over the span of centuries, adaptations by less conservative tradents and writers could accumulate significantly.[30]

For these biographers, writing about events in the distant past required them to sort through legendary and actual historical data.  

Although it is typically better to write closer in time to the events being recounted, ancient historians knew that sources too close to the events could be less reliable and lack perspective.[31] This is due to the influence of political pressure and the matter of historical perspective. 

When it comes to political pressure, Keener notes that “[p]leasing powerful potential readers was a significant temptation and avoiding their wrath sometimes a necessity”.[32] Given the political environment of his time, Nicolaus of Damascus was prudent to praise Augustus and Herod the Great. The historian Velleius Paterculus was “far less reserved” in his praise of Tiberius, who was emperor at the time of his writing, than later historians. Arrian preferred Ptolemy and Aristobulus as sources for Alexander the Great because Alexander was dead at the time they wrote their histories. As a result, they were not pressured or influenced to engage in flattery (unlike Callisthenes, Alexander’s embedded historian, who did engage in flattery).

On the issue of historical perspective, historians “often need at least some space after events to discern which events will lead to significant events in the long run”.[33] Scholar Markus Bockmuehl points out that the 1940 edition of Encylopaedia Britannica devotes only a half column to Adolf Hitler, offering “more information about his ‘vegetarian diet and lack of respect for the Treaty of Versailles than about his ideological views on Greater Germany or the Jews’”.[34] Likewise, the work’s much longer article on Winston Churchill focuses on his military failures in World War I and dismisses his current relevance as a “political has-been”. As Keener notes: “These two individuals would bear roles of entirely different significance when viewed from a vantage point of several years later”.[35] Ultimately, writing from an adequate distance to the events allows a historical writer to avoid myopia.

3.6. Ancient Biography vs. Modern Biography

Although ancient and modern biography both aim to communicate historical information about an individual in narrative form, ancient biography differed from its modern namesake in certain ways. As Keener notes: “The conventions of ancient biography permitted considerable freedom in how biographers recounted their information”.[36]

In his seminal work, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography” (2016), scholar Michael Licona lists various compositional devices that were used in the writing of ancient biographies. These include the following:[37]

  1. Transferal of information about one figure to another.
  2. Displacement of an event from one context to another. 
  3. Conflation of material to simplify it.
  4. Compression of time sequences to maintain dramatic continuity.
  5. Spotlighting to keep the focus on a single character, despite knowledge that others were involved.
  6. Simplification that removes or changes details to prevent the narrative from being cluttered.
  7. Filling in plausible details where they were unknown to maintain narrative’s realism.
  8. Paraphrase.

Some of these compositional devices are still employed in modern biographic writing. Some of these, however, are no longer accepted.

Another way by which ancient biographies differ from modern biographies is in the standard of verbal precision. Verbatim wording was not expected in ancient biographies. As Keener notes:

In all ancient historical work, the primary interest was the gist more than precise wording. Historians necessarily employed standards of accuracy appropriate to memory rather than to recordings.[38]

4. The Gospels As Biographies

Having gone through an overview of ancient biography, we can now look at the Gospels as ancient biographies and examine various factors affecting their content. These factors will have an effect on how we view the Gospels in terms of historical reliability.

4.1. Full-Length Biographies of A Public Figure and Sage

The Gospels are ancient biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the movement known today as Christianity.

As mentioned earlier, one organic way of organizing ancient biographies is by subject: public figures like political and military figures, sages, and poets. When it comes to Jesus, he encompasses two categories since he was both a public figure and sage (i.e. teacher or philosopher).

Since Jesus was a sage, the Gospels contain elements typical of biographies of sages — teachings, anecdotes (to illustrate the sage’s moral teaching), and aphorisms.

In addition to being a sage, Jesus was also a public figure like certain other sages such as Socrates, Crates, and Demonax who became publicly known in their communities.[39] Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working drew large crowds. He also drew controversy among the Jewish religious leadership and was executed publicly.

As mentioned earlier, biographies of sages tended to focus more on a sage’s words than his actions. This is because most sages led relatively uneventful lives. Since Jesus was also a public figure, the Gospel authors were able to focus on his actions significantly.

Like biographies of other public figures, the Gospels are also full-length biographies — possessing a three-part structure.[40] This feature of the Gospels follows from Jesus being a public figure, but it also follows from another fact — that the Gospels emerged from the early Church, a community deeply interested in Jesus and led by his disciples in the decades following his death. The Gospels being full-length biographies indicates that the Gospel authors had substantial information on Jesus to work with. They were not dealing with information scarcity as biographers of poets did, for example.

4.2. Early Empire Biographies

The Gospels were written during the early empire, the period when historiographic standards for ancient biography were at their highest. This period is situated after the era of prose encomium and before the period of hagiography. As Keener notes, strong historiographic commitments “clearly dominated by the era of the Gospels”.[41]

4.3. Written in the Eastern Mediterranean

It is also worth noting that the Gospels were written in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area in which the Greek practice of historia, seeking firsthand knowledge by traveling to the locations of the events and interviewing eyewitnesses, clearly prevailed. As Keener notes:

Greek practice dominated the eastern Mediterranean, from which the Gospels, written in Greek, hail.[42]

4.4. Written Within Living Memory

The Gospels were written within living memory of Jesus. Based on the standard dating, the Gospels were written 40-65 years after the death of Jesus — that is within living memory.[43] Mark’s gospel, in particular, was written well within living memory.[44] Since the Gospels were written within living memory, their authors were in a good position to receive reliable information about Jesus, and ultimately, record a substantial amount of historical information.[45]

Since the Gospels were written 40-65 years after the events they recount, they also fall under the ideal period to write historical works.[46] The Gospels fall within living memory but they are distant enough from the initial events to not fall under political pressure and (more relevant to the Gospel tradition) and avoid myopia.[47]

It must also be noted that by the standard dating, the Gospels were written closer to the events they recount than most extant historical works in antiquity. By ancient standards, 40-65 years is not a long period.[48] Around forty years, as is the case with Mark’s gospel, is even short! As Keener notes:

Only a few surviving ancient biographies come from within roughly four decades of their chief character, as Mark likely does.[49]

To put this into perspective, Arrian’s biography of Alexander the Great (our best surviving biography of Alexander) was written four centuries after his death.[50] Plutarch’s biography of Cicero, the great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher, was written around 140 years after his death.[51] Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius, the Roman emperor during Jesus’ lifetime (reigned 14 – 37 AD) was written at least some 80 years after his death![52]

In addition to Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius, it is worth noting the Roman histories we have that also give us information on Tiberius (unlike biographies, which focus on a single person, histories focus on a single topic and often involve multiple individuals). Even most of these histories, however, are further away from the death of Tiberius than any of the Gospels are from the death of Jesus. Velleius Paterculus’ work was written 7 years before the death of Tiberius while Tacitus’ and Dio Cassius’ Roman histories were written at least 70 and 160 years after the death of Tiberius.[53] Furthermore, although Paterculus’ history was written while Tiberius was still alive, his testimony is usually valued less by scholars than that of the other three writers since Paterculus engaged in flattery towards Tiberius. He may have been working under Tiberius’ patronage.[54]

Ultimately, as Keener notes, most of what is known about the ancient world comes from surviving biographic and historical sources written within the same distance of the Gospels to the events they recount (40-65 years) or beyond (more than 65 years).[55]

In addition to what has been discussed, the existence of earlier written sources about Jesus must be noted as well. In certain cases, we know that there are earlier works for historical figures that have not survived. We know, for example, that there were earlier works on Alexander the Great that Arrian drew on (e.g. the works of Aristobulus and Ptolemy). When it comes to Jesus, the same can be said.

Luke notes that “many” written accounts about Jesus were circulating the early Church before he wrote his own gospel (Lk 1:1). One of these sources is undoubtedly Mark. Another may have been the hypothetical Q source, which was probably primarily a collection of Jesus’ sayings (based on the shared material between Matthew and Luke). As Keener notes, other than Mark, however, these other written accounts have been lost to history.[56] The need for copying these texts was presumably lessened as Mark and the later Gospels covered or surpassed their contents. These earlier texts that Luke mentions other than Mark may have been circulating around the period of Mark’s gospel, or even earlier (scholars date Q between 40-60 AD).[57]

4.5. The Value of Memory in Antiquity

One factor to take into account in the remembrance and passing on of Jesus’ deeds and teachings is that ancient culture highly valued memory. As Keener notes:

[There was] a necessity for memory in all ancient learning, whether formal or informal, literate or illiterate, in Greek elementary schools or for disciples for ancient disciples following an itinerant teacher. Ancient pedagogy without a focus on memory did not exist.[58]

Likewise, scholar of Roman antiquity, Karl Galinsky, notes:

Ancient Rome was a memory culture par excellence.[59]

To illustrate the high value placed on memory in antiquity, we can look to examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish culture.

When it comes to Greco-Roman culture, Greek students memorized considerable portions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, works that were deemed quintessential to their culture. Many illiterate bards were also able to narrate these works from memory in their entirety.[60] Orators in antiquity were supposed to memorize their speeches, even though these could run for two or three hours![61] In Greco-Roman education, maxims were memorized and passed on for centuries, even in elementary educational settings. 

The value of memory was also evident in Jewish culture. Jewish education “emphasized memorization of the Torah”.[62] In addition to the Torah, other aspects of the Jewish tradition needed to be learned. These necessarily entailed the development of memory skills. As Keener notes:

Most relevantly, Jewish boys necessarily developed memory skills; whether or not they could read and (still more rarely) write, Jewish boys learned to recite Torah. Those who were not literate therefore learned Torah orally.[63]

More generally, Judeans and Galileans were known for instructing boys meticulously in the law, probably especially orally and presumably therefore requiring the boys to develop skills in oral memory.[64] 

Like the broader Greco-Roman circulation of maxims, Judean oral training involved memorizing and passing on various types of wise sayings such as proverbs, parables, etc — rhetorical forms which were also used by Jesus.[65]

In the end, ancient culture valued and developed memory much more than modern Western culture. This is the era in which Jesus and the disciples lived. The value and emphasis placed on memory in antiquity undoubtedly aided the disciples and other early Christians in remembering Jesus’ deeds and teachings.[66] 

4.6. Jesus was a Teacher

An important factor that must be taken into account in the remembrance and passing on of Jesus’ legacy is that Jesus was a teacher with disciples.[67] As a teacher, we would expect Jesus to pass on his teachings to his disciples. On the other hand, we would expect Jesus’ disciples, as disciples, to learn and pass on his teaching carefully. As Keener notes, these basic teacher-disciple goals were normally achieved in antiquity.[68]

In antiquity, teachers expected disciples to develop their memories in order to learn and remember their teachings.[69] One major way disciples ingrained their sage’s teachings was repetition or rehearsal.[70] We have evidence for this practice among Greek and Jewish disciples.

It was also standard practice for disciples to not only learn their sage’s teachings, but study and emulate their behavior. As Keener comments on the effects of this practice: “Not surprisingly, then, they also transmitted it”.[71] This was a practice among Greek and Jewish disciples. In fact, later Jewish disciples cited the behavior of earlier rabbis as legal precedent.

Moving on from the disciples to Jesus, Jesus, as a teacher, used various teaching techniques for “easy remembering”.[72] Prominent features in the Gospels include various kinds of parallelism, alliteration, assonance, and wordplay, as cataloged by a host of New Testament scholars.

During his ministry, Jesus trained his disciples in various ways. He instructed his disciples as a group (Mk 4:34; 23:10; Matt 11:1; 20:25-27) and he also sent them out on preaching missions in pairs (Mk 6:6-7 and Lk 10:1-16). The fact that Jesus sent out his disciples on preaching missions implies that “there must have been agreement between Jesus and his disciples on the message they should preach and the life-style they should follow”.[73] This action of sending out disciples in pairs also guards against error and fosters learning. If one disciple forgot or committed a mistake in preaching, the other person would have been able to help him or correct him. They also would have been able to talk to each other about their preaching mission beforehand and afterward.

Having said all that, although Jesus’ disciples were like other disciples in many respects, the tradition does highlight a key feature that separates Jesus’ disciples from many kinds of disciples. As Keener notes:

Their adherence to Jesus was not to one teacher among many, as in the rabbinic movement or among many popular philosophers. It is closer to that of disciples of a teacher founding a new school or movement.[74]

Ultimately, as Keener notes, disciples in antiquity “normally preserved the substance of their masters teachings and, where relevant, stories about their behavior”.[75] Transmission through disciples was, in fact, “one of ancient memory’s most careful forms of transmission”.[76] In light of the evidence, the most appropriate starting assumption should be that Jesus’ disciples would have learned and transmitted his teachings no less carefully than other disciples in antiquity transmitted the teachings of their sages.[77] 

4.7. Memory and Eyewitnesses

Besides earlier texts, biographers had to depend on memories to write their works. These could have been their own memories for events they witnessed, the memories of eyewitnesses whom they interviewed, or the memories of those who had heard the eyewitnesses.[78]

Since biographical works depend on memory in an important way, we need to tackle the subject of memory, its capabilities and frailties, in our discussion on the Gospels as historical sources. The capabilities and frailties of memory will have implications on the reliability of the Gospels. They will help us form judicious expectations for the Gospels as historical sources.

In our discussion below, we will examine memory’s capabilities, what kind of events are usually remembered, the frailties of memory, and end with a conclusion on the Gospels and memory.

4.7.1. Memory’s Capabilities: Remembering the Gist

Although memory is fallible, it is generally reliable in accurately recounting the gist (substance or essence) of events.[79] This is what we should expect from the Gospels — for them to accurately preserve the gist of Jesus’ deeds and teachings. The exception to this would be Jesus’ aphorisms. These would be preserved closer to verbatim like other aphorisms in antiquity. An analysis of the Gospel texts also confirms this. Aphorisms are reported by the Gospel authors closer to verbatim agreement than Jesus’ parables.[80]

When it comes to the Gospels preserving the gist of events, Keener illustrates two examples of what this would look like:

If disciples witnessed the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Lk:11-17), features they might well recall would include the locality (Nain) and the raising of the widow’s son in the midst of the burial procession. Luke would be within his rights as a historian to reconstruct Jesus’s wording, to infer (based on his other knowledge) the crowds and Jesus’ compassion, and to mention the gate (7:12), even if these features were not in his oral or written source (although they may have been).

Since Mark knows Jairus’s name (in contrast to that of many other characters in his Gospel, (e.g., in 1:40; 2:3; 3:1; 5:2), the ultimate source of the account may have been familiar with this locally prominent family (cf. 5:22). Jesus’ immediate disciples (5:37) could well have remembered mourners’ scorn (5:40), obviously the previously apparently dead girl responding to Jesus, walking and eating (5:41-43), and a feature as striking as Jesus touching someone presumed dead (5:41). While we normally do not expect recollection of direct discourse, the preservation of the Aramaic command “Talitha kum!” (5:41) presumably reflects a reminiscence rather than Mark’s elaboration, since Mark must translate it for his audience. Details such as the witnesses’ astonishment could well be in Mark’s source, but neither would any of us likely begrudge him this inference.

Others will insist on a core larger or smaller for these examples, but the point is that the Evangelists normally derive the basic putative events from their sources; in the case of these illustrations, the genre leads me to expect that Luke and Mark did not invent the stories that Jesus raised this young man and woman.[81]

4.7.2. Events We Remember

We experience so much in our lives, but what do we tend to remember? We tend to remember events that are memorable such as unusual, distinctive, or emotionally charged experiences.[82]  

We are also more likely to remember experiences that we found mentally engaging, experiences that we have shared with others (the more we “rehearse” memories, the more likely we are to remember them), and memories of matters that are of great interest or importance to us.[83]

Experiences that impress on multiple senses (e.g. sight, sound, and smell) are also more memorable.[84] This is because we reconstruct memory based on multiple memory subsystems in different parts of the brain. As a result, these experiences enjoy multisensory reinforcement.

Looking at the disciples, we see that many of their experiences with Jesus must have been memorable. Of course, they must have been able to remember many of Jesus’ miracles as unusual and distinct events.[85] In addition to this, Keener notes other experiences with Jesus that the disciples may have found memorable:

The Gospels do suggest that Jesus’ closest followers would have had such stark, emotive experiences (Mk 4:38-41; 6:49:-51; 8:17-21, 33; 9:32; 10:13-14, 24, 26, 32; 14:18, 22-25, 29-31, 38, 43-52, 72). Jesus’ teachings also incorporate graphic, often vivid visual imagery that could impress itself through hearer’s imagination in multiple subsystems (e.g. Matt 5:34-36, 39-41, 46; 6:2, 26-30; Mk 9:42-43; Lk 12:6-7). Morally salient information also invites “evaluative attention”, hence reinforces retention; evaluative attention is relevant to the consideration demanded by Jesus’ ethical pronouncements and riddles.[86]

They must have remembered significant personal-event memories related to Jesus as well, such as their callings (Mk 1:16-20; Matt 9:9-13) and other words or deeds of Jesus that had a significant impact on them, or “stood out” to them (Mk 1:29–31; 3:13-19; 8:31-33; 9:2-7, Matt 16:17-20; Jhn 13:4-17; 19:25-27).

The disciples must have also been able to remember Jesus’ teachings, as well as many of their experiences with him, due to repetition or rehearsal. There are two points to note here.

One, Jesus recounted his teachings many times.[87] Many people needed to hear them after all. The privilege of hearing the content of the Sermon on the Mount did not belong to a single group of people, and neither did the privilege of hearing many of Jesus’ parables, or his teachings on the primacy of love, the importance of faith, forgiveness, etc. In addition to preaching in public, Jesus also instructed his disciples in private (Mk 4:34; 23:10; Matt 11:1; 20:25-27).

Two, the disciples rehearsed Jesus’ deeds and teachings many times. Like other disciples in antiquity, Jesus’ disciples must have been recounting his deeds and teachings from the start, that is, from the moment they became disciples.[88] As mentioned earlier, Jesus also sent out his disciples in pairs on preaching missions. This must have further ingrained his teachings in their memories. As they taught, they must have continuously rehearsed the things that they learned. Furthermore, after Jesus’ death, as the Christian movement began to spread with communities being established across the Mediterranean, the disciples of Jesus must have continued preaching. They must have also been invited to recount their stories of Jesus again and again.[89] These must have reinforced their memories of these experiences.

Another reason why the disciples must have remembered Jesus’ teachings and many of his deeds is because these were of great interest to them. As Keener notes, the disciples clearly had a deep interest in Jesus.[90] They devoted their lives to learning and passing on Jesus’ teaching, and after the death of Jesus, they continued in their mission of passing it on in the face of hardship and persecution.

4.7.3. Memory’s Frailties

Although memory aids us in our daily life, it does have frailties.

When we remember events, our mind reconstructs memory from different subsystems. If there are gaps, our mind sometimes fills them in with inferences, “including mental elaborations and explanations fused to our memories”.[91] This process can lead to errors.

As Keener notes, “[o]ur memories are not video cameras”.[92] Although memory studies suggest that memory is generally reliable in accurately recounting the gist of events, it can be faulty at times in the details due to human fallibility.

When it comes to eyewitness testimony, the most relevant memory frailties are suggestibility, chronological conflations, and transience.[93]

a. Suggestability

Suggestibility involves the emergence and/or acceptance of false memories. False memories involve distortions, and in extreme cases, remembering events that never happened at all.

Memory experiments, however, show that planted false memories tend to lack “perceptual detail”, are much more difficult to recall afterward than genuine memories, and are “more readily subject to correction or suppression in healthy adults”.[94] Furthermore, one important observation about false memories is that they are only accepted by the individual because they possess the characteristic of plausibility. For this reason, scholar Robert McIver notes that any false collective memories that survived in the Jesus tradition may well have been consistent with the overall gist of Jesus’ ministry. They likely would have persisted because they had “considerable congruence” with “what Jesus did and said”.[95] 

As for the possibility of remembering events that never happened at all, this is unlikely. Cases of these are “very rare”.[96] Today, instances of these sometimes include unintentionally fabricated memories “recovered” in therapy but as Keener notes, this phenomenon was not available to adjust memories in antiquity.

b. Chronological Conflations

Another memory frailty is the lack of accurate chronological connection for memories.

Chronological errors are one of the most common memory errors. As Keener notes:

[I]ndividual memory usually preserves episodes … piecemeal, organizing them interpretively rather than chronologically. Although episodic memory may preserve location and other elements, the timing of events normally must be reconstructed from other memory cues rather than simply retrieved from memory. Memory often conflates experiences that are similar.[97]

Precise chronology, however, was not an expectation in ancient biography, especially given their frequent dependence on episodic recollections.[98] Literary devices employed in ancient biographies further attest to this. Conflation of events to condense stories and rearrangement of material in terms of events and sayings were accepted practices in ancient biographic writing. 

c. Transience

Transience refers to the fact that we forget most of what we experience. As Keener notes, this frailty is a survival strength. It prevents our brains from being overloaded.[99]

According to memory studies, after five years, witnesses might recall as many as half of “distinctive episodes” and particularly significant memories.[100] However, memory studies also show that memories that remain after those five years typically remain stable for decades.[101]

Some studies even confirm the tendency to recall memorable personal events for up to six decades![102] Researchers, for example, compared Danish citizens who had experienced the time of the German invasion (April 9, 1940) and subsequent surrender (May 4, 1945) with others who had only studied it in school. More than two-thirds of those who lived through the invasion correctly remembered the weather during the invasion as opposed to about one-twentieth of the control group. Around one-sixth of the witnesses could even recall the time of the German surrender within five minutes, a feat no one among the student group could replicate. Those who did not recall the correct answer normally did not substitute an incorrect one as well.

In another study, four decades after the closure of Camp Erika, a Dutch prison camp, nearly all interviewed survivors recalled it vividly.[103] More than half of the survivors could even recall the precise date of their imprisonment; over half also remembered their registration number.

As Keener notes, the crucial period for the eyewitnesses’ ability to remember what they witnessed is the first five years after the crucifixion of Jesus, not the forty to sixty-five years before the writing of the Gospels. Most of what the disciples remembered after five years must have persisted through the following decades, especially when it was reinforced through retellings.[104] 

3.7.4. Memory and Eyewitnesses: Conclusion

Ultimately, the frailties of memory argue against verbatim recall in the Gospels, as well as for the possibility of errors in detail. However, the capabilities of memory suggest that the disciples must have been able to accurately recount the gist of many events related to Jesus, as well as his teachings. 

Based on information from the Gospels, the disciples spent considerable time with Jesus during his ministry — around three years. They must have been able to remember many memorable events, certainly enough to fill more than a gospel. As Keener notes:

What they did remember after a few years, however, should have easily filled more than a Gospel, rather than less. Indeed, if we add up the time necessary for the occurrence of all episodes reported in all four Gospels, it would represent only a fraction of a one-year ministry.[105] 

In fact, the author of John states that Jesus did many more things that he did not recount in his gospel (Jhn 20:30, 21:25).

4.8. The Gospels And Eyewitness Testimony

In antiquity, if someone sought to produce an authoritative historical work, he would seek out eyewitness testimony. As Keener notes: “This was the historical and biographic practice everywhere favored in antiquity”.[106] Failing eyewitnesses themselves, historical writers would appeal to material that they believed came from eyewitnesses. Thus, they “sought information from sources as close to the eyewitnesses as possible”.[107] One then should expect the Gospel authors, who chose the biographic medium and obviously valued Jesus’ example and teachings, to treat their subject as respectfully as other historical writers did during their time. As Keener notes:

They must have at least believed that their material cohered in basic substance and spirit with the testimony of the witnesses present at the events they depict.[108]

This brings us to the question — who were eyewitnesses to Jesus in the early Church? Eyewitnesses to Jesus would include the Twelve (Mk 3:13-19), a sizable group of other disciples, both male and female (Lk 8:1-3; 10:1-23), Jesus’ mother and relatives (Acts 1:13-14), and recipients and witnesses of his healings.

Although many besides the eyewitnesses would have been recounting stories about Jesus, the eyewitnesses themselves would have been viewed as the most authoritative sources within the early Church.[109] As Keener notes, other authoritative voices would have been leaders such as elders, who would have the greatest contact with the apostles (Acts 6:6; 14:23: 15:6).[110]

Given the time frame, the Gospel authors may have had direct contacts with eyewitnesses (some may have been eyewitnesses as well!). This is especially true of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had many disciples and most disciples in antiquity were young and in their teens. As Keener notes:

Like most disciples of other teachers, whether Jewish or gentile, most of Jesus’ disciples were probably in their teens, with a few possibly in their early twenties.[111]

Given their youth, many of Jesus’ disciples would have lived several decades after his death in 30 AD.

Based on the standard dating (Mark 70 AD, Luke and Matthew 80-85 AD, and John 90-95 AD), Mark was written when a fair number of eyewitnesses were still alive, while Matthew, Luke, and (especially) John were written when eyewitnesses were becoming scarce.[112] Of course, the Evangelists may have had contact with eyewitnesses at an earlier point in time, prior to the writing of their Gospels.

Furthermore, although eyewitnesses were becoming scarce in the period Matthew, Luke, and John wrote their Gospels, many people who heard the eyewitnesses would have still been alive.[113] A number of these individuals would have also held leadership positions within the early Church.[114] Even if we were to suppose that the traditions in the Gospels do not come directly from eyewitnesses, they would still come to us from communities closely removed from them, with many individuals who heard the eyewitnesses still being alive. This is the benefit of the Gospels being written within living memory. We will discuss drawing on community or collective memory later in subsection 4.9.2.

With that said, let us examine the Gospels, our main sources about Jesus, in more detail. Working with prominent scholarly views on authorship, let us assess them as sources to Jesus. 

4.8.1. Working With Prominent Views

According to the traditional view, not all of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Mark was an interpreter of Peter and Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Only Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, and therefore, eyewitnesses. Although traditional authorship for all four Gospels can be defended with good scholarly force (see footnote 3 for some basic information), we may base our reconstruction here on prominent views in contemporary scholarship.

The gospel of Mark. Today, a large number of scholars (probably the majority) believe that the gospel of Mark was written by Mark. In 2019, Josh Pelletier conducted the largest survey on Markan authorship to date.[115] Pelletier surveyed the views of 207 critical scholars writing in English, in their published works from 1965 onwards, and found that most scholars believe that Mark was the author of Mark’s gospel and that Peter was his source or one of his sources.

This is in line with the strong Church tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the reminisces of Peter. The earliest testimony for Markan authorship comes from Papias (60-130 AD), a second-generation Christian who was instructed by John the Elder (John the Elder may have been John the Apostle!). As Papias notes ca. 100 AD regarding Mark’s gospel:

And the elder [John] used to say this: “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or make any false statement in them.[116]

The gospel of Luke. As Keener notes, a large number of scholars (probably the majority) believe that the gospel of Luke was written by Luke.[117] As a member of the Jesus movement at an earlier date, Luke himself states that he investigated matters “from the very beginning” (Lk 1:3) and that the material in his gospel is in line with the testimony of “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” (Lk 1:2).

The gospel of John. Finally, a large number of Johannine scholars (probably the majority) believe that the main source behind John’s gospel was an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus. In fact, John’s gospel is explicit in its source being a disciple of Jesus (Jhn 21:24). As Keener notes:

Probably a majority of Johannine scholars, including myself, do view the beloved disciple, the main source behind the Fourth Gospel, as an eyewitness personally acquainted with Jesus.[118]

It is worth noting that the standard dating of 90-95 AD for John does not preclude John the Apostle from writing the gospel. The early Church fathers attest that John lived to be a “very old man” and that he wrote his gospel in his old age.[119] Employing scribes for writing was also common in antiquity among the literate and illiterate.[120] Cicero and St. Paul (Rom 16:22), for example, both used scribes, despite being literate.

As Keener notes, “many” scholars believe that John the Apostle wrote the fourth gospel while many others believe that his disciples had a hand in writing the Gospel based on his reminiscences. Together, these positions enjoy “considerable support”.[121] In fact, in scholar James Charlesworth’s list of views concerning the identity of the beloved disciple, the apostle John enjoys “the longest list of defenders”.[122] Many other scholars also believe that the main source behind the fourth gospel was not John the Apostle but another disciple of Jesus.[123]

Ultimately, under this reconstruction, we have two gospels based on eyewitness testimony (Mark and John), with one of these two (Mark) being based on the testimony of a leading disciple of Jesus. We also have another gospel written by a traveling companion of Paul, Luke. As we shall see in the following subsection (4.8.2. Luke’s Preface), Luke was in a good position to garner information about Jesus from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources (e.g. Paul). As mentioned earlier, Luke also states that the material in his gospel is in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses (Lk 1:2).

4.8.2. Luke’s Preface

Luke’s preface contains important information about his gospel, so we should look into it. Here is Luke’s preface in full (Lk 1:1-4):

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke includes a preface to his gospel similar to what one finds in works of ancient historiography.[124] His summary of what is to follow is explicitly historical: “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk 1:1), and his stated purpose in writing his work, to confirm truth (Lk 1:4), fits expectations for historiography.

Luke also mentions the existence of many written accounts about Jesus prior to his own work, one of which is undoubtedly Mark but the rest have been lost to history. Luke mentions that the contents of these earlier works were in line with the testimony of the “eyewitnesses” (autopai in Greek) and “servants of the word” (Lk 1:2). As scholar Craig Blomberg notes: “The use of the single article in the Greek with the two nouns paired in this fashion suggests the eyewitnesses and those who handed down the tradition were at least two closely related groups and most probably one and the same”.[125] This verse in Luke indicates the high regard the early Church placed on eyewitness testimony and the authoritative status eyewitnesses held in the passing on of the Jesus tradition.

Continuing further, Luke says that he is following in the footsteps of these earlier written accounts in writing a work in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses. He states his credentials in being able to so to do so as being someone who has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Lk 1:3). The word “investigated” here in the original Greek is the word παρακολουθέω (parakoloutheō), which may refer to “investigation” or “participation”. In any case, the verb indicates “thorough acquaintance” or “informed familiarity”.[126] As Keener notes:

The NRSV’s investigating everything captures some of the sense, but the wording elsewhere in historical prefaces suggests an even more direct acquaintance than investigation; it can even imply participation in some of the narrative, an implication consistent with the narratorial “we” later in the work (see comment at Acts 16:10). But whether by research or other means, the verb parakoloutheô, translated here as “investigating,” denotes such thorough acquaintance that Luke is in a position to evaluate the accuracy of the reports he receives.[127]

Since the sort of familiarity expressed by parakoloutheō “often comes partly through personal involvement”, “participation” is the likely meaning of the verb in this passage.[128] Parakoloutheō, then, would refer to Luke’s involvement in the Christian movement and prior knowledge of the tradition (this is consistent with the “we” sections in Acts, as we shall discuss shortly). Whether by research or participation, Luke’s “thorough acquaintance” would have entailed consulting and contact with reliable sources, presumably eyewitnesses and servants of the word (Lk 1:2) and those who knew them (e.g. Paul).[129]

When Luke says that he has investigated everything “from the beginning” (ἄνωθεν or anōthen), he claims that his acquaintance with the Christian movement began much earlier than the time of his writing.[130] This fits with the “we” passages in Acts.

Scholars widely agree that Luke and Acts were written by the same author.[131] Acts is written in the third person, but at times, shifts into the first person (“we”), when the author of Acts claims to have traveled with Paul. The narrative shifts between third person and first person a number of times throughout Acts. If these “we” passages represent genuine eyewitness material, and the majority of scholars do affirm this, then as Keener notes:

If this is correct, Luke stayed in Judea for up to two years, and would have had plenty of opportunities to talk with eyewitnesses and those who knew them (Acts 21:15; 24:27; 27:1).[132]

The “we” sections in Acts span the 50s AD, beginning in 51 AD and ending in Judea in the late 50s AD, when many eyewitnesses were still alive. In fact, we know that the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5).[133]

Before proceeding to the next section, let us return to Luke’s comments in his preface regarding the earlier written sources about Jesus prior to his own work. As Keener notes:

[A]ncient prefaces treated their predecessors in different ways: some berated them, whereas others, more charitably, simply distinguished their respective spheres of activity.[135]

As a member of the Jesus movement at an earlier date (the 50s AD, possibly earlier), Luke praises the accuracy of the works before him. This reflects well on Mark’s gospel. It also indicates the stability of traditions about Jesus over time within the early Church, since Luke affirms the contents of Mark’s gospel, which was written ca. 70 AD, as a member of the Jesus movement at a much earlier date. Luke’s only complaint seems to be about order or rhetorical arrangement (Lk 1:3).[136] This is consistent with the comments of John the Elder on Mark and his gospel that was discussed earlier. Papias, relating what John the Elder said, said that the Elder affirmed the accuracy of Mark but notes that he did not write everything in order.

4.9. Passing on the Jesus Tradition

Stories about Jesus were recounted in the early Church but what role did the eyewitnesses play in this process? In addition to eyewitnesses, the community as a whole would have had a role to play in passing on the Jesus tradition. This brings us to the question, would traditions about Jesus have been well-preserved in collective memory before finding their way into the Gospels?

4.9.1. The Role of Eyewitnesses

During their lives, the eyewitnesses repeatedly recounted their stories about Jesus, and their reminiscences were at the disposal of others who sought information.[137]  

As mentioned earlier, although many besides the eyewitnesses would be recounting stories about Jesus, the eyewitnesses themselves would have been viewed as the most authoritative sources within the early Church. This would have especially been the case for the disciples, who were not only chief eyewitnesses to Jesus but were also leaders in the early Church. As Keener notes:

In Middle Eastern and rural Mediterranean culture, deference to authority and tradition would reinforce the role of Jesus’s designated apostles on both counts. They were both chief eyewitnesses and the chief leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem (cf. Gal 1:19-19; 2:7-9), to which even Diaspora Christians looked as the mother church (Rom 15:25-27; Gal 1:17-18; 2:1-2; cf. 1 Cor 16:4) … As leading eyewitnesses and also leaders of the early Christian movement, Jesus’s chief associates would be accepted as leading authorities on what Jesus said and did. Theirs would be the standard version to which other members of their movement would wish to conform.[138]

While they were alive, the eyewitnesses served as a conservative force on the Jesus tradition.[139] Based on Paul’s letters, we know that the eyewitnesses held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5). Based on Christian and Jewish sources, we also know that Peter and James the Just, leaders in the early Church (Gal 2:9), were martyred in the 60s AD, ca. 64 AD for Peter and ca. 62 AD for James — a very short distance to the writing of Mark’s gospel.[140]

4.9.2. Drawing from Communal or Collective Memory

What if the Gospel authors drew not on eyewitnesses for their works but on tradition they believed derived from eyewitness testimony? How likely is it that these community traditions were fabricated or significantly altered before eventually finding their way into the Gospels?

When it comes to the fabrication of events, this is unlikely. Although communities shape tradition, they typically do not fabricate it. As scholar Robert McIver notes: “It seems that by and large, outright fabrication of collective memory is rare”.[141] This is especially the case when we are talking about living memory.

It is also highly unlikely that the gist of these traditions would have been significantly altered within 40-65 years since this period is quite short by the standards of oral tradition. As noted by oral historian Jan Vansina, “recent oral tradition — one or two generations [(40-80 years)] suffers only small damage” [(a generation here is defined as a period of 40 years)].[142] 

The major weaknesses of oral tradition apply more to later oral tradition, not recent oral tradition. Traditions about Jesus within the early Church that found their way into the Gospels classify as recent oral tradition, given the period of 40-65 years between the death of Jesus and the completion of the Gospels. As Keener notes, by the standards of oral tradition, “the time frame between Jesus’s ministry and any of the first-century Gospels is quite brief”.[143]

This is not to say that oral tradition beyond two generations (80 years) necessarily becomes significantly distorted. Keener cites many examples of robust oral traditions over a century, as well as over centuries, in various cultures around the world.[144] The point is that recent oral tradition, within 80 years after the events they recount, tends to be well-preserved and not significantly altered. Within this time frame, the gist of oral traditions tends to persist.

In the following subsection, we will discuss in greater depth why traditions about Jesus within the early Church were very likely well-preserved within a timeframe of 40-65 years.

4.9.3. Going Deeper: Why Traditions About Jesus Were Likely Well-Preserved

Given what we know about oral tradition and the early Church, it is highly likely that the gist of traditions about Jesus would have been well-preserved in collective memory. There are many reasons supporting this conclusion.

1. Within Living Memory

The period of oral tradition for all four Gospels is 40-65 years. This falls within living memory, the period during which eyewitnesses or their hearers were alive.

When it comes to eyewitnesses to Jesus, Jesus’ disciples were the chief witnesses. After Jesus’ death in 30 AD, the disciples did not go into “permanent retreat”, they continued to work in the world. They established Christian communities across the Roman Empire, nurtured them, moved among them, preached, and engaged in worship with communities.[145] Based on Paul’s letters we know that the disciples held key leadership within the early Church into the 50s AD. Christian and Jewish sources also attest that Peter and James the Just, leaders in the early Church, were martyred in the 60s AD.

During their lives, the disciples and other eyewitnesses continued to recount their stories of Jesus and their recollections were at the disposal of others who sought information. While they were alive, the eyewitnesses served as a conservative force on the Jesus tradition.

The important point is that the period of 40-65 years between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels was not devoid of eyewitness influence. Eyewitnesses played a major role in a considerable stretch of that period.

Furthermore, when eyewitnesses to Jesus were becoming scarce in 80-95 AD, many people who heard the eyewitnesses would have still been alive (e.g. Luke the Evangelist, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, etc). A number of these individuals would have also held leadership positions within the early Church during this period. Even if we were to suppose that the traditions in the Gospels do not come directly from eyewitnesses, they would still come to us from communities closely removed from them, with many individuals who heard the eyewitnesses still being alive. Once again, this is the benefit of living memory.

2. The Role of Tradents

When it came to the passing on of tradition in communities, individuals called “tradents” assumed the duty of remembering traditions accurately, narrating them to the community, and in general, serving as “repositories” of community tradition.[146] Tradents are a cross-cultural phenomenon — they have been observed in various oral cultures. Tradents function as “strong tradition-bearers” and typically assume the role due to their qualifications such as being eyewitnesses (Jesus’ disciples undoubtedly served as tradents during their lives), having close contact with the eyewitnesses, possessing great memory, etc.[147]

Ultimately, the role of tradents must be considered in the oral period before the writing of the Gospels. Tradents played an important role in the passing on of the Jesus tradition within Christian communities, functioning as strong bearers of tradition.

3. Oral Tradition is Set Up to Endure

Another reason in support of the preservation of the Jesus tradition is that oral tradition is set up to persist for a lengthy period of time. As Keener notes, oral tradition is “specifically designed to counter the frailties of memory”.[148] When it comes to oral tradition, the core of stories generally persists in collective memory, especially within living memory.[149]

Stability is a feature of oral tradition. This is because every retelling of a story stabilizes the core of the tradition in the memory of the community, guarding against future error and distortion.[150] Errors in oral performances were also called out by the audience. As noted by oral historian Jan Assman: “An audience knowledgeable in a tradition is a strong conservative force”.[151] This expectation of public correction kept performers in check since the consequence of correction was shame, which is a more than adequate deterrent in many oral cultures today, as well as in ancient cultures that operated on an honor-shame paradigm.

Having said that, although oral tradition features stability, it also features flexibility. Variation is standard fare in oral performances.[152] Verbatim reproduction was not expected. Oral performers adapted their presentation for their audience, contextualizing stories for them like good teachers or preachers do today. As good storytellers, oral performers also varied in their telling of stories that were retold repeatedly. These variations, however, must come in noncentral details since “one was not allowed to tamper with key information”.[153] Oral tradition, for this reason, is characterized by stability in the core of stories with variation in minor details. 

Ultimately, oral tradition was designed to endure. Since the traditions about Jesus that found their way into the Gospels classify as recent oral tradition, it is highly likely that their gist was well-preserved.

4. Jesus’ Deeds and Teachings Were Important to the Community

Another important factor that needs to be considered when reconstructing the handling and preservation of oral tradition is the importance of the traditions to the community. As Keener notes:

Not all traditions are equal; some are more relevant to community identity and thus more apt to be preserved with greater attentiveness and group concern.[154]

Traditions about Jesus were certainly of great importance to the early Church. They were foundational to the community and must have been preserved with greater care. As Keener notes communities “usually develop more formal and deliberate ways of rehearsing memories important to their group identity”.[155]

5. The Effect of Wider Knowledge of Stories

One more reason for the preservation of the Jesus tradition is the effect of wider knowledge of stories. Wider knowledge of stories could constrain their subsequent telling.[156] We see evidence of this in the preface of Luke’s gospel. As Keener notes:

Luke not only affirms that his account about Jesus rests on information going back to the beginning of the movement (Lk 1:1-2) but also expects that Theophilus will find it consistent with what he has already learned (1:3-4) … The familiarity of Luke’s audience with much of Jesus’s story at the time he wrote (Luke 1:4) presumably constrained his telling.[157] 

Stories about Jesus undoubtedly circulated widely while the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church in roughly the first three decades of the movement. Not only were the eyewitnesses active during this period but the early Church was already well-connected by the time Paul wrote his letters in the 50s AD. As Keener notes:

Clearly already in the third decade of the Christian movement, many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7–9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). 87 Missionaries could speak about some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1–5; 9:2–4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14–16) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21–22; Col 4:7–9). Some urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carrying letters (Rom 16:1–2; Phil 2:25). They also relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6–15 passim) and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21–23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10–15).[158]

Wider knowledge of stories about Jesus had a constraining effect on their subsequent telling, making later alterations difficult.

So far, in this subsection, we discussed many reasons why traditions about Jesus within the early Church were likely well-preserved before finding their way into the Gospels. Is there any evidence in our sources that suggest that this turned out to be the case, however? Yes. As Keener notes:

Yet most Synoptic accounts actually diverge from one another far less than one encounters in many oral traditions and in many cases of ancient literary dependence. Their conspicuous similarity may reflect their respect for the authoritative status of their material, their lesser rhetorical interest in paraphrase, and most relevantly here, their brief chronological distance from their material.

Some diverse traditions about Jesus arose by the later decades of the first century … Particularly obvious divergences in our sources surface in the specifics of Judas’s grisly death or Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:2-16; Luke 3:24-38). Nevertheless, and in contrast to such examples, the strong majority of gospel tradition reflected in our first-century sources appears remarkably stable. This is likely in part because our written sources derive from the period of living memory of Jesus.[159]

4.10. Use of Prior Sources

As Keener notes, we can assess an author’s intention of reliability in the way he used his sources.[160] In order to do this with the Gospels, we need to take into account their literary relationship. Based on the majority solution to the Synoptic Problem, the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) are as follows — Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke drew from Mark substantially, another shared source called “Q”, as well as their own exclusive sources — “M” (Matthew) and “L” (Luke).

Although we cannot test how Mark used his sources, the fact that Matthew and Luke drew substantially from Mark suggests their respect for Mark as a reliable historical source about Jesus. This is consistent with Matthew and Luke believing that Peter’s authority stood behind Mark’s gospel. Since Matthew and Luke were writing well within living memory of Mark’s gospel (10-15 years after Mark), they were in a better position than we are today to know who Mark was and assess the reliability of his work.[161]

It is worth noting that some of Mark’s information is attested independently in the letters of Paul. Paul’s letters comprise our earliest extant Christian writings, some twenty-plus years after the death of Jesus. Where Mark and Paul address the same material, the gist remains the same in both (1 Cor 7:10-11; 11:23-26; Mk 10:9-12; 14:22-25).

Looking at how Matthew and Luke adapted Mark and Q, we see that they drew from Mark and Q more conservatively than most of their peers writing biographic or historical works (generous paraphrase was common in ancient historical writing — Matthew and Luke did not do this!).[162] As scholar Michael Licona notes, Matthew and Luke “very often” employ a “near copy and paste method” where we can test them.[163] This may reflect their respect for the authoritative status of their material. If Matthew and Luke adapt their sources conservatively where we can test them, we can expect them to do so where we cannot test them.[164]

On the other hand, most scholars believe that John wrote independently from the Synoptics.[165] This does not necessarily mean that the author of John’s gospel did not know about the Synoptics (he likely did), it means that he did not have any of the Synoptic Gospels in front of him as he was composing his gospel. He did not draw from them as sources. However, it is worth noting that John departs from the Synoptics in significant ways. John’s gospel is a mix of history and theological insight, with the author telling Jesus’ story his own way. As Keener notes:

The consistent direction of many of the above changes [in John] … appear to be deliberately rhetorical and especially theological More importantly, John highlights some theological points by these surprising variations (although, again, these features need not be incompatible with historical detail as well). That is, we find here not random accidents or mistakes but a consistent and therefore deliberate adaptation.[166] 

Despite these changes, an examination of John’s gospel shows substantial overlap and strong coherence with the Synoptics. Its kinship with the Synoptics is evident.[167] Moreover, if the primary source behind John’s Gospel was an eyewitness, as most Johannine scholars affirm, then he would have been in the best position to recount Jesus’ life and ministry. 

4.11. Literary Techniques

Like other ancient biographers, the Gospel authors employed various literary devices in their biographies of Jesus. Michael Licona has written an excellent book surveying this subject, “Why Are Their Differences In The Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography” (2016). As an alternative, I highly recommend watching Licona’s talk on Youtube, “Why are there Differences in the Gospels?”, to learn more about how the Evangelists employed literary devices in their Gospels. It is a very enlightening watch!

5. Acts of the Apostles

After discussing the Gospels as ancient biographies, we can now turn to our discussion on Acts of the Apostles. In this section, we will examine Acts as a work of ancient historiography, as well as the question of authorship in particular.

5.1. Acts as Ancient Historiography

The consensus of scholars today is that Acts belongs to the genre of ancient historiography, which aims to recount real events in the past.[168] If a biography is focused on a person’s life and character, historiography is more focused on a single topic and often involves many people.

Looking at Acts, the focus of the work is not on a single individual but a single topic, the early Christian Church. In recounting the history of the early Church, the narrative of Acts involves many people — the apostles generally but especially Peter and Paul.

Acts of the Apostles is also the second volume of a two-volume work, Luke-Acts. The gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles are dedicated to the same patron, Theophilus. Both works display clear continuity as evidenced by the beginning of Acts: “In my former book, Theophilus…” (Acts 1:1).

Luke’s gospel has a preface and the preface to a two-volume work could cover both volumes. This is probably the case for Luke’s preface (Lk 1:1-4).[169] Luke’s preface, as mentioned earlier, is similar to what one finds in works of ancient historiography.

As mentioned earlier, most scholars affirm that Luke-Acts was written by Luke, a traveling companion of Paul. Since Luke was a traveling companion of Paul and a member of the Jesus movement at an early period (in the 50s AD, possibly earlier), he was in a favorable position to garner information from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources about the history of the early Church, as well as from Paul regarding his own experiences. As an eyewitness to some of the events in Acts (the “we” material), Luke was also in the best position to write about those events. Overall, Luke has great credentials to write a history of the early Church like Acts.

6. Conclusion

Ultimately, the evidence points to the Gospels and Acts being generally reliable historical sources. When it comes to the Gospels, multiple reasons support this conclusion.

  1. The Gospels are full-length early empire biographies written within living memory of the events they recount. This makes their preservation of substantial historical information likely.

  2. The traditioning community was led by eyewitnesses.

  3. The leaders of the traditioning community were not only eyewitnesses, they were also disciples, who must have worked hard from the beginning to preserve their mentor’s legacy and teachings. As Keener notes, transmission through disciples was “one of ancient memory’s most careful forms of transmission”.[170]

  4. By the standards of oral tradition, the time frame between Jesus’s ministry and any of the first century Gospels is quite brief. The oral tradition that made it into the Gospels classifies as recent oral tradition, which tends to be well-preserved and not significantly altered. 

  5. Given the time frame between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels, the Gospels cannot have been significantly (more than a few decades) later than those sources they used. The authors of the Gospels were in a better position than we are today to assess the reliability of their sources, and they likely had good reason to trust and use them for their biographies of Jesus.

  6. The Gospel authors display a solid intention of reliability in the way they adapted their sources. Matthew and Luke drew from Mark and Q more conservatively than most of their peers writing biographic and historical works. If Matthew and Luke draw from their sources responsibly where we can test them, we should expect them to do so where we cannot test them.

  7. Luke affirms the accuracy of the written accounts about Jesus prior to his own work (Lk 1:1-2). One of these works is undoubtedly Mark. The fact that Luke praises the accuracy of Mark as a member of the Jesus movement at an early period (the 50s AD, possibly earlier) and a traveling companion of Paul, reflects well on Mark’s gospel. Luke’s comments also indicate the stability of traditions about Jesus within the early Church over time. In addition to Luke, John the Elder independently affirms the accuracy of Mark’s gospel.

In light of the evidence, Keener concludes:

[The historical evidence] suggests a significant a priori probability in favor of at least a core of genuine historical information behind the average account in the Gospels … a more historically probable starting point is that these biographies written within living memory of Jesus do in fact succeed in preserving many of Jesus’s acts and teachings, even for many events that are not independently attested in multiple sources.

In any case, I believe that my two most essential primary points are difficult to dispute: in the early empire, normal biographers writing full works about recent figures attempted to recount or reconstruct what they believed to be historical information (or perhaps in some cases, traditions that were at least possibly historical), normally for edifying purposes; and biographers could exercise a degree of flexibility in how they recounted that information.

More precisely, audiences from the Gospels’ era did not expect biographers to freely invent events, but they did allow them to flesh out scenes and discourse for the purpose of what they considered narrative verisimilitude. Biographers were not supposed to invent a teacher’s message, but they could interpret and communicate it from their own perspectives. If biographies of recent figures in the early empire normally recount genuine historical events, then this expectation follows, to a reasonable degree of probability, for the Gospels.[171]

In the end, we have very good reason to believe that a historical core lies behind the average account in the Gospels. This applies to events that are attested by a single source as well (only in Mark or Q or M or L or J).[172] Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, the basic attitude towards events in the Gospels should be one of trust, since full-length early empire biographies about recent figures normally recounted genuine historical information. 

Moving on from the Gospels to Acts, Acts is a work of ancient historiography that was written by an author who was a traveling companion of Paul and a member of the Jesus movement in the 50s AD (possibly earlier). Based on the information in Acts, Luke was well-positioned to garner information from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources about the history of the early Church, as well as from Paul regarding his own experiences. Luke was also in the best position to write the “we” sections in Acts since he was an eyewitness to those events.

Like the Gospels, we have significant good reason to believe that a historical core lies behind the average account in Acts. Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, our basic attitude towards events in Acts should be one of trust as well.

To proceed to part two of this series, click here.


  1. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 74-76.
  2. Powell, Acts, pg. 37
  3. Many scholars doubt traditional authorship for each gospel but the external evidence we have for traditional authorship (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John writing our Gospels) is strong and unanimous.

    The early Church fathers are unanimous that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John wrote our Gospels. There are also no competing traditions to these authors. All surviving ancient manuscripts attribute the Gospels to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John as well.

    The theory that the Gospels were formally anonymous works is based on (no exaggeration!) zero hard evidence. Yes, the Gospels are internally anonymous in the sense that the authors do not identify themselves within the main body of text but this does not mean that they were formally anonymous (originally published with no authorship attribution) or that no one knew who wrote them.

    In recent years, scholar Simon Gathercole published a paper, “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels” (2018), that decisively refuted the main argument in favor of formal anonymity – that the Gospels are formally anonymous because their authors do not identify themselves within the main body of text. In his paper, Gathercole showed that it was extremely common for authors of ancient biographies to not identify themselves within the main body of the text but elsewhere (e.g. title above the main body of the work, in the capitula list, a running header, etc). We have over one hundred surviving biographies written between the mid-second century BC and the late fourth century AD, and all of them are internally anonymous except two! When it comes to ancient biographies, internal anonymity is not evidence for formal anonymity. Internal anonymity was standard in the genre.

    Having said that, if the external evidence points firmly towards traditional authorship, how do New Testament scholars deal with this? They substantially undervalue the external evidence and base their conclusions on internal evidence. There is certainly good internal evidence for traditional authorship as well but it is the substantial undervaluing of external evidence that gives scholars greater room to come to non-traditional conclusions when weighing the evidence for authorship.

    This is one significant difference between New Testament scholarship and the study of the classics. In the study of the classics, external evidence, such as attestation of authorship by later writers, is accepted as good evidence for the authorship of any particular text. If the Gospels were judged by the same standards as other ancient works, traditional authorship would be affirmed much more across the board. In New Testament studies, however, the Gospels are treated with higher levels of scrutiny and suspicion since they contain miraculous and supernatural elements. This suspicion of the Gospels extends to the early Church fathers, since they belong to the Christian tradition. Due to attitudes such as these in the field, Pope Benedict XVI rightly commented in his Erasmus Lecture that “the debate about modern exegesis is not at its core a debate among historians, but among philosophers”.

    When it comes to the undervaluing of external evidence in New Testament studies, scholar D.A. Carson notes in his commentary of John (The Gospel According to John, pg. 69):

    “Most scholars of antiquity, were they assessing the authorship of some other document, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful, consistent and plainly tied to the source as is the external evidence that supports Johannine authorship. The majority of contemporary biblical scholars do not rest nearly as much weight on external evidence as do their colleagues in classical scholarship.”

    Carson’s comment here apply not only to John but all four Gospels. As I mentioned earlier, traditional authorship is unanimously affirmed by the early Church fathers.

    Likewise, scholar R.T. France notes in his commentary on Matthew (The Gospel of Matthew, pg 84):

    Attribution of this gospel to Matthew the apostle goes back to our earliest surviving patristic testimonies, and there is no evidence that any other author was ever proposed. As far back as we can trace it, and from the earliest manuscript attributions that have survived, it is always the Gospel kata Matthaion. It often seems to be assumed that whatever the early church said about the origins of the NT books must be treated with suspicion unless it can be independently proved, but I do not share that assumption.”

    Ultimately, as scholar Martin Hengel commented on his peers who rejected traditional authorship and affirmed formal anonymity for the Gospels: (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 55):

    “Let those who deny the great age and therefore the basic originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their “good” critical conscience give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of the authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be.”

    If Mark, Matthew, Luke and John did write the Gospels, and a skeptical scholar is surprised to learn this when he meets God in heaven, God would be justified in saying “the evidence was there all along!”.  

    Although Christians are not required to affirm traditional authorship, they are on good grounds in affirming it for all four Gospels. There is good internal and external evidence and testimony of the early Church fathers in particular is quite early and unanimous.

    As for the question of dating, it must be noted that the standard dating is based on an anti-supernaturalist assumption – that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jersusalem Temple in 70 AD. According to many New Testament scholars, since Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Temple, the predictions of Jesus in his Olivet Discourse (Mk 13; Lk 21; Matt 24 and 25) must be “predictions after the fact” or predictions made when such an event was foreseeable by the earliest Gospel author through natural means. This means that Mark, widely believed to be the first gospel, must have been written after the destruction of the Temple during or shortly after 70 AD (70-75 AD), or shortly before it, when the destruction of the Temple was foreseeable (65-70 AD). Interestingly, the largest contingent of scholars believe Mark was written shortly before 70 AD (65-70 AD) — the standard dating for Mark more broadly is 65-75 AD but in discussions the midpoint of 70 AD is typically pegged.

    The problem with the reasoning for the standard dating is that the destruction of the Temple is never mentioned as a past event in any of the Gospels. Furthermore, the Gospels provide odd details if the Temple had already been destroyed at the time the Gospels were written. In his gospel, Mark exhorts his readers to pray that the Temple’s destruction would not occur in winter (Mk 13:18). On the other hand, Matthew urges his readers to pray that it would not occur during winter or on a Sabbath (Matt 24:20).

    Why would Mark tell his readers to pray for it not to happen in the winter if he already knew that the Romans destroyed the Temple in the late summer? Likewise, why would Matthew tell his readers to pray for it not happen in the winter or on a Sabbath if the event had already happened?

    Of course, the main flaw of the reasoning behind the standard dating is that it presupposes that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Temple. But what if Jesus is who Christians say He is? What if Jesus is God Incarnate — “the Word made flesh” (Jhn 1:13)? If Jesus is God then of course, such a prediction would not be implausible at all.

    In addition to supernaturalist explanations, there are also arguments put forward for Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple on secular (non-supernaturalist) grounds, though I won’t get into those arguments here. This end note is long enough as it is!

    In any case, if one adopts an open philosophy (miracles are possible) rather than a ready-made Kantian philosophy (miracles are impossible), or if one accepts secular arguments for Jesus prediction the destruction of the Temple, then the dating for the Gospels open up. The Gospels may have been written between 30 AD–95 AD. This also affects conclusions for dating — one reason for doubting traditional authorship for Matthew and John is that it is unlikely that they would have been alive in the period 80-95 AD, since this was the period when eyewitnesses were becoming scarce within the early Church (as you can see, assumptions affect scholarly reconstructions in major ways).

    I personally affirm traditional authorship for all four Gospels. I think the internal and external evidence for Mark, Matthew, Luke and John writing our Gospels is solid. I also believe that at least some of the Gospels were written before 70 AD. It is hard for me to believe that that forty year period (30-70 AD) was absent of any Gospel composition. With that said, as a Christian, I have no problem assuming the standard dating or prominent scholarly views on authorship (as I do in this two-part series) because a strong case for the reliability of the Gospels can be made while adopting these views. I also see assuming prominent views in New Testament scholarship as a good way to “meet skeptics halfway” — working with their assumptions and dialouging from there.

    I have to say though, if I were a skeptic, I would be troubled by the fact that critical scholarly views on the dating and authorship of the Gospels, which give skeptics a lot of leeway in their reconstructions of the past pertaining to the historical Jesus and the early Church, lie on weak foundations. Non-traditional views on authorship run counter to the unanimous testimony of the early Church fathers and the theory of the Gospels being formally anonymous is based on zero hard evidence. On the other hand, the standard dating on the Gospels is based on an anti-supernaturalist philosophical presupposition. If I were a skeptic, these foundations for my views on authorship and dating would not give me confidence and security. Furthermore, as a hypothetical skeptic, if I were to assume the traditional authorship and earlier datings, then it would entail major difficulties on my end.

    If some of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John), how would I, as a skeptic, account for the events reported in these Gospels? Would I be willing to rest on faith that they were lying when it comes to their affirmation of events that challenge my worldview?

    Likewise, if any of the Gospels were written earlier than the standard dating, particularly between 30-60 AD, can I still remain confident in my belief that the events in the Gospels do not reflect the testimony of the eyewitnesses? Due to Paul’s letters we know that the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5). We also have strong evidence from Christian and Jewish sources that leading figures of the early Church — Peter, James the Just, and Paul, were marytred in the 60s AD (ca. 62 AD for James and ca. 64 AD for Peter and Paul). For these reasons, New Testament scholars view the period 30 AD – 60 AD as “the period of the eyewitnesses”. We know that many eyewitnesses were alive during this period. If any of the Gospels were written between 30-60 AD, then that is strong evidence in favor of the conclusion that their contents are in line with the testimony of eyewitnesses. A 30-60 AD dating means that we have biographies of Jesus written during the time of Paul’s missionary journeys (as recorded in Acts) or even earlier!

    To the Christian, a dating of 70-95 AD for the Gospels is non-problematic. The Gospels may have been written during this period and a strong case can still be made for their reliability. To the skeptic, however, a dating of at least one of the Gospels within 30-60 AD is much more problematic — given that the disciples of Jesus held key leadership positions within the early Church during this period. If any of the Gospels were written within 30-60 AD then that aids the Christian side with major ammo in historical reconstruction — making it very likely likely that the contents of that gospel or those gospels are in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses.

    More can be said on the question of authorship and dating. For those who are interested in looking into this further, I suggest picking up Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus. I also recommend readers to check out my blog post, Advances in New Testament Studies, for a good introduction into New Testament studies and summary of the developments in the field.
  4. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 201
  5. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 27
  6. Ibid, pg. 32
  7. Ibid, pg. 221
  8. Ibid, pg. 221
  9. Ibid, pg. 222
  10. Ibid, pg. 68
  11. Ibid, pg. 69-70
  12. Ibid, pg. 53-54
  13. Ibid, pg. 77
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid, pg. 78
  16. Ibid, pgs. 102-103
  17. Ibid, pg. 91
  18. Ibid, pg. 96
  19. Ibid, pgs. 36 and 38
  20. Ibid, pg. 157
  21. Ibid, pg. 151 
  22. Ibid, pg. 112
  23. Ibid, pg. 244
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid, pg. 208
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid, pg. 209
  28. Ibid, pg. 478
  29. Ibid, pg. 479
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid, pg. 241
  32. Ibid, pg. 252-255
  33. Ibid, pg. 252
  34. Ibid, pg. 255
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid, pg. 303
  38. Ibid, pg. 311
  39. Ibid, pg. 387
  40. Ibid, pg. 119
  41. Ibid, pg. 67
  42. Ibid, pg. 77
  43. Ibid, pg. 209
  44. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
  45. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 477
  46. Ibid, pg. 366
  47. Ibid, pg. 255
  48. Ibid, pg. 366
  49. Ibid, pg. 477
  50. Ibid, pg. 242
  51. Mike Licona. The Gospels are Historically Reliable: 6 Reasons. Retrieved from:
  52. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels, loc. 512
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 483
  56. Ibid, pg. 477
  57. Dunn, Christianity in the Making Volume 1: Jesus Remembered, pg. 159
  58. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 424
  59. Ibid, pg. 370
  60. Ibid, pg. 442
  61. Ibid, pg. 423
  62. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, pg. 149
  63. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 443
  64. Ibid, pg. 430
  65. Ibid, pg. 426
  66. Ibid, pg. 423-424
  67. Ibid, pg. 416
  68. Ibid, pg. 448
  69. Ibid, pg. 428
  70. Ibid, pg. 427
  71. Ibid, pg. 428
  72. Ibid, pg. 427
  73. Ibid, pg. 414
  74. Ibid, pg. 437
  75. Ibid, pg. 448
  76. Ibid, pg. 302
  77. Ibid, pg. 448. Keener is conservative in his conclusion despite thinking that there is more reason to believe that the disciples of Jesus had greater reason to preserve his deeds and teachings well than other ancient disciples in antiquity: “Apostles and tradents who staked their lives on the message of Jesus obviously had deep interest in it. These long-term memories were not a mere matter of random recollections. As Samuel Byrskog notes, ‘Since Jesus was a qualitatively unique teacher, it must have been generally essential to transmit his words and deeds’ (emphasis his). In chapter 15 I compare them to other ancient disciples, but ultimately they had more reason, not less reason, than disciples of other teachers to transmit carefully their master’s words and deeds. As noted earlier, perspectives are inevitable, and in this case, far from their faith in Jesus as Lord invalidating their perspective, it shaped their perspective for the very reason that the disciples preserved and propagated his teaching widely to begin with, despite the enormous cost. Even disciples of other teachers normally preserved their teachers’ message; they did not, however, always stake their lives on its propagation, as most of Jesus’s disciples ultimately seemed ready to do” (Christobiography, pgs. 396-397).
  78. Ibid, pg. 365
  79. Ibid, pg. 400
  80. Ibid, pg. 390
  81. Ibid, pg. 367
  82. Ibid, pg. 393
  83. Ibid
  84. Ibid, pgs. 394-395
  85. Keener, The Reliability of the Gospels, par. 15. Retrieved from:
  86. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 395
  87. Licona, Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?
  88. Ibid, pg. 397
  89. Ibid. pg. 398
  90. Ibid, pgs. 396-397. As Keener notes on the effect of interest on memory: “Interest motivates memory in both literate 179 and illiterate persons. Swazi herdsmen, for example, with normal memories on other matters, could readily and nearly precisely recite verifiable details of cattle purchases that they had merely witnessed a year earlier. 180 Illiterate !Kung bushmen and doctoral-level ethnographers who interview them each may remember what the other finds impossible to recall; different cultures value and develop memory skills for different subjects” (Christobiography, pg. 396).
  91. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 373
  92. Ibid, pg. 374
  93. Ibid, pgs. 376-380, 382-385, 398-400
  94. Ibid, pg. 378
  95. Ibid, pg. 380
  96. Ibid, pg. 379
  97. Ibid, pg. 382-383
  98. Ibid, pg. 383
  99. Ibid, pg. 391
  100. Ibid, pg. 399
  101. Ibid, pg. 398
  102. Ibid, pg. 400
  103. Ibid, pg. 399
  104. Ibid, pg. 400
  105. Ibid, pg. 399
  106. Ibid, pg. 402
  107. Ibid.
  108. Ibid, pg. 366
  109. Ibid, pg. 402-403
  110. Ibid, pg. 403
  111. Ibid, pgs. 419-420
  112. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
  113. Based on extant historical writings, we know of a number of individuals who knew the eyewitnesses as being alive during this period. These include St. Luke the Evangelist, Clement of Rome and Polycarp.

    Assuming John the Elder is John the Apostle or another disciple of Jesus, we may also add Papias to this list. Given that Clement was ordained by Peter himself, it is highly likely this his predecessor as bishop of Rome, Anacletus, also knew St. Peter and was ordained by him as well. Another possible candidate of a person who had contact the eyewitnesses would be Ignatius of Antioch.

    We know this much based on limited information from antiquity. Certainly, there were many others who we do not know about, especially since some eyewitnesses were still alive during this period (e.g. John the Apostle and Simeon).

    Clement’s epistle to the Romans (ca. 80-95) also assumes that there are still living leaders of the Christian churches who had been appointed by the apostles of Jesus (1 Clem. 5.1, 42, 44).
  114. St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, was succeeded by Linus and Clement (most probably Anacletus as well), whom he ordained personally. Polycarp, who was instructed by John the Apostle, would go on to become bishop of Smyrna, Turkey. Assuming John the Elder is John the Apostle, Papias would also go on to become bishop of Hierapolis. Clement’s epistle to the Romans (ca. 80-95) also assumes that there are still living leaders of the Christian churches who had been appointed by the apostles (1 Clem. 5.1, 42, 44). Of course, people who had contact with the eyewitnesses would go on to assume leadership positions within the early Church!
  115. Mike Licona. Who wrote the Gospel of Mark? Retrieved from: Was Peter Mark’s Source for the Gospel of Mark? Retrieved from: Pelletier’s study is not released yet but I am going to be conservative and assume that his results show a “slight majority” in favor of Markan authorship since Mike Licona and Nick Peters did a survey on the subject (sampling of 75 critical scholars) a few years ago and this was their result. Pelletier is Licona’s student and he volunteered to continue Licona and Peter’s research on the topic.
  116. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 306
  117. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 227
  118. Ibid, pg. 403
  119. Pitre, The Case for Jesus, pg. 76 (PDF)
  120. Keener, The Gospel of John, pg. 101
  121. Ibid. pg. 83
  122. Charlesworth, Disciple, 197–211
  123. Keener, The Gospel of John, pg. 83. See also the rest of the chapters discussion.
  124. Ibid, pgs. 224-225
  125. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 28
  126. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 226.
  127. Keener, Acts, pgs. 17-18
  128. Ibid, pg. 226-227
  129. Ibid, pg. 229
  130. Ibid, pg. 228
  131. Ibid, pg. 227
  132. Ibid pg. 228 as well as Keener, Gospel truth — Luke 1:1-4, par. 8. Retrieved from: The content of the quote in the latter source is of course, also mentioned in Christobiography — but I preferred the phrasing in this article better. 
  133. Ibid, pg. 410
  134. Ibid, pg. 228
  135. Ibid, pg. 229-230
  136. Ibid, pg. 230. 
  137. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition, pg. 42 
  138. Keener, Christobiograpghy, pg. 474. 
  139. McIver, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 3754
  140. Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 61-66 (PDF)
  141. Rhodes Eddy, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 4307-4417
  142. Keener, Christobiograpghy, pg. 455
  143. Ibid, pg. 480
  144. Ibid, pg. 462-465
  145. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition, pg. 42
  146. Rhodes Eddy, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 4396
  147. Ibid.
  148. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 410
  149. Ibid, pg. 470
  150. Ibid, pg. 466
  151. Ibid, pg. 467
  152. Ibid, pg. 467-468
  153. Ibid, pg. 468
  154. Ibid, pg. 466
  155. Ibid, pg. 453
  156. Ibid, pg. 468
  157. Ibid.
  158. Ibid, pg. 231
  159. Ibid, pgs. 442 and 484
  160. Ibid, pg. 263
  161. Ibid, pgs. 154-155
  162. Ibid, pgs. 326
  163. Ibid, pg. 326
  164. Ibid, pg. 264
  165. Keener, The Gospel of John.
  166. Keener, Christobiography, pgs. 353
  167. Craig Keener, John’s Gospel in Historical Jesus Research. Retrieved from:
  168. Ibid, pg. 222
  169. Ibid, pg. 224
  170. Ibid, pg. 302
  171. Ibid, pgs. 497, 499-500.
  172. Ibid, pg. 497