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November 29, 2011
How Reliable are the Gospels in Describing X?
None of the early Christian gospels are primary sources for Jesus of Nazareth; they are all secondary! I am using primary in the sense of “contemporary with the events described” and secondary in the sense of “a later composition using oral tradition and some written sources.” The truth is we have no early Christian artifacts from the first century. Virtually all the early manuscripts of the gospels consist of third-century fragments; a very few fragments (three) are second-century (one of which is a fragment of a non-canonical gospel). A first-century dating for the canonical gospels is an informed hypothesis by scholars.
The earliest complete text of the Gospel of Mark (which is the earliest gospel) is a fourth-century artifact (Codex Vaticanus) dating some 230+ years after the events it describes. But even if we had a complete manuscript of Mark dating around 70, it still turns out that Mark was based on oral tradition—that is on hearsay, and represents what a later author thought likely pertained to Jesus’ situation a generation or so earlier.
Taking this information seriously we might well describe the situation of Jesus this way. The Jewish man Jesus is an X, a person unknown through sources and artifacts contemporary with his time. This X, however, had an amazing ability to fire the human imagination. X was very adaptable and easily blended in various ways with diverse religious views. In short, X provided an impetus, or stimulus, that produced an extensive heterogeneous literary tradition, which continues even today.
None of the gospels, when first composed, enjoyed a position of special prominence as the exclusive interpreter of X, but each took its place as competitor in the X tradition. True, to judge by the large number of text fragments preserved in the third century, there seems to have been a preference for reading the gospel texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But physical fragments from other gospels also survived in the first three centuries: the Egerton Gospel (mid-second century), Gospel of Mary (third century), Gospel of Thomas (@200), Gospel Oxyrhynchus 1224 (late 3rd/early 4th).
Even the later preferred four (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were in competition with one another, which is easily seen by a close comparative reading. The first three while very similar are nevertheless quite different in both the portraits they paint of X and in the things they attribute to X. In fact, personal data about X was not really important, to judge from Paul who cites only five sayings of X and gives the barest bits of information about the career of X. The Gospel of Thomas only quotes sayings of X. In Thomas no significance is attached to what X did or to what was done to X.
In the early period all texts competed for readers without any special status being attached to a given text. That preferred status happened much later. The exclusive idea of “preferred canonical” text as opposed to “not preferred non-canonical” text was slow to take effect, and did not exist at all in the early period, if we judge from the manuscript evidence left by those who produced Bibles. As late as the 4th century, Codex Sinaiticus numbered the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas among its contents; Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) included parts of 1st and 2nd Clement; and as late as the 5th/6th century Codex Claromantanus included the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul, and the Revelation of Peter. Thus religious texts that later did not have canonical status were included in our oldest Bibles along with texts later given preferred status—even as late as 500 years after X.
Here is one practical historical problem created by all this data. The final thing Jesus says upon the cross is quite different in three canonical gospels. In Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) the author has Jesus say, in words from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke (23:46) the author has Jesus say, in words from Psalm 31:5 “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” In John (19:30) the author has Jesus speak last words fitting the author’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose in the world (5:37, 12:27): “It is finished.” In the Gospel of Peter the author has Jesus say: “My power, <my> power, you have abandoned me.” In a recently published Coptic Codex the final saying of Jesus is to the thief (<13>: 15-16): “You will eat with me at the dining table in my kingdom.” The earliest surviving artifact of Jesus’ last saying in Luke is 3rd century (P75); in Matthew, Mark and John it is 4th century (Sinaiticus); in the Gospel of Peter it is 8th century; in the Coptic codex it is 9th/10th century.
Which of these sayings shines with the patina of history? That is: which of these last sayings more accurately represents a historical memory, and which would you label as pious religious fiction? Or is it the case that each of them represents a later creative reenactment of what the author supposed should have been the case?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:37pm
Hi, Charlie. I am in total agreement with you on the big issues in your most recent posting. That leaves me only minor matters to ask about or comment on. One, you would date Codex Vaticanus earlier than Codex Sinaiticus? I am not expert enough in such matters to have an opinion one way or the other, but I would be interested to hear on what basis you would draw a conclusion on this. Two, I assume the experts are correct in judging both codices to be from the 4th century, which I believe would make them closer to 330 than 230 years years later than the crucifixion of Jesus.