We are currently in chapter 2, wherein Lee Strobel attempts to run the writers of the gospels–which we’ve established are actually Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–through 8 tests to determine their credibility. Last week we discussed test #1. Today we are going over test #2.
Test #2: The Ability Test
The main question the author will be attempting to answer is whether or not the gospel writers were actually able to record history reliably.
Which we don’t know, because we don’t have any original copies of their books. What we do have are copies of copies of copies.*
I asked Dr. B “Won’t you concede that the faulty memories, wishful thinking, and the development of legend would have irreparably contaminated the Jesus tradition prior to the printing of the gospels?
Yes, they absolutely would have.
Dr. B starts talking about how things were different in Jesus’ day and age. In fact, Jesus’ culture hadn’t even invented the printing press. So a lot of learning was done orally.
Doesn’t that support Strobel’s point? No, apparently.
Rabbis became famous for having the entire Old Testament committed to memory. So it would have been well within the capability of Jesus’ disciples to have committed much more to memory than appears in all 4 gospels put together–and to have it passed along accurately.
When Lee expresses his doubts about this, Dr. B says that because this was a culture that valued oral tradition, they went to greater effort to be able to memorize things. That’s why a lot of Jesus’ sayings were originally in poetic form, because that was easier to remember.
Except that we don’t have the original sayings of Jesus, so where is he getting this information from? Even if you assume that the gospels as we have them today are the originals (they’re not), we don’t know what Jesus’ spoken words actually were because no one had tape recorders. Shoot, no one was even following him around dictating word for word everything he wrote. Maybe this refers to the Q document, which is primarily a collection of Jesus’ sayings, but that hardly makes Q “Jesus’ original words.”
Set that aside. Even if the people in Jesus’ day did have better memories (which is probably somewhat true), studies have shown that memory is incredibly faulty and unreliable. Studies have also shown that the more you go over a certain memory, the more corrupted it becomes. Even though the gospel writers may have had memories that were capable of holding more information, they would not have been immune to the corruption of said memories.
After Dr. B tells us that the disciples would have had better memories than we do, Dr. B also says that our definition of memorization and their definition of memorization were a little bit different. Their definition was more flexible. This seems contradictory to me.
These Rabbis who had the entire Old Testament memorized, did they have it memorized word for word because they have better memories, or did they have it sorta memorized in that some of the details varied from time to time? They could both be true, however, it still doesn’t do much for your “of course the Bible is accurate” argument.
But it’s this next paragraph that really makes me scratch my head.
In studies of cultures with oral traditions, there was freedom to vary how much of the story was told on any given occasion…one study suggested that in the ancient Middle East, anywhere from 10% to 40% of any given retelling of sacred traditions could vary from one occasion to the next.
However, there were always fixed points that were unalterable, and the community had the right to intervene and correct the storyteller if he erred on those important aspects of the story…..
it’s an interesting coincidence that 10% to 40% is pretty consistently the amount of variation among the synoptics on any given passage.
So…. I don’t understand. What Dr. B seems to be saying is that the Bible isn’t word perfect, and was never supposed to be. What matters is that the important events are there, and the rest of the details don’t matter.
Which sounds a lot like very liberal Christianity. I don’t know about mainstream Christians, but conservative Christians would absolutely pitch a bitch if you tried to tell them this. Conservative Christians and Seventh Day Adventists believe that all scripture is “god breathed.” They basically believe that God dictated, men wrote.
Isn’t this book marketed toward conservative Christians? How do they not see this as some sort of heresy? If they read this in a Bart Ehrman book, they would balk. Do they just accept this information because it is coming from one of their own?
Dr. B even spells this out for the author.
“It’s likely that a lot of the similarities and differences among the synoptics can be explained by assuming that the disciples and other early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus’ original teachings and deeds.”
Sermons. Whole sermons have been preached about the word order or specific wording in a single verse. Adventists believe that all scripture is as if it was dictated word for word by God. And yet, Adventists still read this book. I know, because an SDA recommended it to me 4 years ago.
If Dr. B is a more liberal Christian, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Dr. B has looked at the same evidence I have and come to a different conclusion. Well and good. We can agree to disagree and move on.
But if I ever hear Dr. B try to prove a point in a sermon by breaking down the exact wording of a verse, I’m calling hypocrisy.
Because, even according to his beliefs, the Bible just doesn’t work that way.
Lee starts this subsection by reminding us all what the game of telephone is. One child (or adult) whispers something to another child (or adult) and then that child (or adult) is supposed to pass it on. By the time the message reaches the end, it is completely different.
(I was never good at these games, as I had hearing damage when I was a child. All I ever heard was “whisper whisper mumble whisper.” I had many arguments with the teacher over whether or not I was going to try and pass along the message of “whisper whisper mumble mumble whisper.”)
Strobel asks Dr. B if the game of Telephone is a good example of what happened to the story of Jesus. After all, most of it was passed along orally for many years.
I actually agree with Dr. B when he says that no, it’s not a good analogy. This is a better analogy for what happens to gossip. Games of Telephone are much different when you can hear the person speaking in normal tones of voice and are allowed to ask the speaker to repeat themselves. When you’re taking care to pass along correct information, that’s much different than what happens in a game of telephone.
Now, unlike Dr. B, I still think it’s possible that a lot of stories got distorted along the way. Human memory is, after all, easily corrupted. (We are assuming that a person’s changing of the story is an accident, which is not always a fair assumption, but nevermind.)
Dr. B also says that, in cultures that relied on oral teachings, the surrounding community would be monitoring you, and that they would intervene if you got shit wrong. (Though apparently they will only intervene if you get 10-40% wrong, and how do you measure 10-40% of what someone is saying as they are saying it?)
When someone jumps in with a correction, that person might be wrong. But when the storyteller isn’t 100% sure that the correcter is wrong, the storyteller could start to doubt himself, and wind up convincing himself that he is the wrong one. What could end up happening is that the wrong people end up miscorrecting the right people.
This happened to me once when I was trying to memorize a Bible verse. Mom overheard me learning it “wrong,” and corrected me. But actually, mom was thinking of another Bible verse that was similar, (one of those parallel gospel things) and since I didn’t have the verse completely memorized, I thought she was right. My mom’s mis-correction ultimately made both of us wrong. And mom and I ultimately could go to the Bible and find that out. If we lived in a culture that relied on oral tradition, we might’ve just been screwed.
So I can only partially agree with the hypothesis that their memories were better than ours. In some ways they probably were, but in a lot of ways, they probably weren’t.
I was going to stop there for now, but the next subsection heading is only a paragraph, so we’ll knock it out today instead of next week. Or next month. or whenever I get around to writing these things.
3. The Character Test
This one is pretty obvious. This test involves looking at the people who wrote the gospels and deciding whether or not their character was such that they would have told the truth.
Which is kind of a hard test to do, since we don’t actually know who wrote the gospels.
But, since Dr. B and the author totally believe the gospels are written by the actual Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Strobel wants to know if these were truthful people.
“We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest they were anything but people of great integrity,” Dr. B said.
That is the truest thing you’ve ever said. It is true because we don’t know who wrote the gospels. So no, we don’t have any evidence that the gospel writers were bad, but we don’t have evidence that they were good, either.
Dr. B says that, since the disciples were willing to die for their faith, they had an “enviable track record” of honesty.
And the reason we know that they were willing to die horrible deaths for their beliefs is because the Bible says so. But do we know this from history? I don’t know enough at this time to make an accurate statement about that.
In any case, that’s Dr. B’s entire response to this argument.
Next week we’ll look at test #4: are there any contradictions? Lee Strobel has promised to ask “the tough questions” in this book, and one of the reasons I started down the road to atheism was the contradictions in the gospels, of which there are many. This is the only argument all book that any atheist I know actually had questions about as they were losing their faith. I’m looking forward to this.
*Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman