Sunday, 20 September 2015

Chinese Whispers? On the reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life & teachings

This is a bit different from my usual. There are different ways of thinking about how the gospels came to be as we have them. I'd like to offer up a few thoughts.

I said this isn't like my usual. So I'm not going to do a step by step through every little stage of an argument. I'm going to dive in.

So I'm not going to challenge the scholarly consensus that Jesus died 30-33AD and that Mark's gospel was first completed a few years before or after 70AD. Let that be for the moment, because I want to talk about what that would mean for the reliability of what the gospel says about Jesus and his teachings.

Let's address the oft-expressed suspicion about "Chinese whispers" distorting the message by the time it was written down. That concern about Chinese whispers pre-supposes a certain kind of culture, a sort of village-storyteller culture. But that would be inconsistent with the origins of Christianity in a 1st century Synagogue-based culture. Here a key focus would be on READING the law and prophets, not on raconteuring. This was Israel: a partly scribal culture. From the start, the synagogues were centres of Christianity. And when Jesus' followers were thrown out of synagogues they started their own assemblies. There is no reason to suppose these would mysteriously change from that partly scribal culture to some kind of purely oral story-telling one. This is relevant because writing is usually a better safeguard for keeping tradition. This seems evidenced by Mark ch 13 v 14, where the one reading out the gospel aloud is expected to say something about the meaning. This little clue tells us that Mark's gospel was written down so that it could be read out to others. This isn't a Chinese whispers culture. This is a reading and writing culture.

There are other reasons for debunking the "Chinese whispers" hypothesis. We should understand that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples was teacher and pupil. That is crucial: if we don't understand that, we miss everything.

They were to receive his teaching, not invent their own. In turn, embedded in the Book of Acts is the understanding that the apostles took the same approach to teaching their followers, who were devoted to the "apostles' teaching". This teaching framework makes even oral teaching secure. They're not sharing stories to entertain each other round the camp fire at night. They are receiving teaching. This is an innately conservative culture, not a raconteur culture.

There would have been many in earliest Christianity who could read and write. Acts ch 2 tells of significant numbers of believers, and a few chapters later we are told that priests had joined the movement. Priests could read and write. Even amongst the famous 12 disciples, at least Matthew could no doubt write for his day job as a tax collector.

Scribal note-taking by followers of a rabbi (What do you mean you've never heard of scribal note-taking? Did you think they used memory sticks?) is reflected in Jesus' saying in Matthew 13:52: "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old." The scribes' treasure is his scribblings. Scribes, literate followers of Jesus would have kept notes, their 'new treasure', of what their rabbi said. Look at his words: "every scribe who has become a disciple..."

There are yet more reasons to debunk the Chinese whispers hypothesis. From very early days, there were Christian assemblies beyond Jerusalem, and the immediate significance of this is that there would have been some demand from the earliest times for written material to send to such assemblies. (Peter couldn't be present in every church all the time - see Acts 9:32 !) Yes, written material. You want evidence of this? The culture of conveying messages in writing is evidenced by Acts 15 where a LETTER is sent out to be READ in the churches as a matter of course. Paul's letters were also to be read out to churches. Think written material, not Chinese whispers. Acts 15 points to a culture dedicated to ensuring messages are not lost: a reading and writing culture.

Take all that together with a couple of other significant things. Early letters, eg 1Thessalonians (ca 50AD), 1 Corinthians, Romans, the letter of James, have bits of Jesus' teaching embedded in in them, not least from the Sermon on the Mount. The thing is that this was even before our four gospels were written. So... this means that these teachings were already circulating in written forms before Mark's gospel was written. So the gospel wasn't just born of oral culture, or Chinese whispers: it was born in an environment where some of this stuff was already written down. From there it is a smaller step to the written gospels we have.
Even if some speak of gospels being an end product of oral tradition, that theory should not just be uncritically assumed. When stories are spoken within the lifetime of witnesses, we are entering the domain of oral history, not just oral tradition, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out. That is, we are within a time-frame when witnesses could still be telling their own story for themselves; we're not talking about several generations passing in which tradition could take on a life completely independent of history.

Of course, you may want to know more of how a particular gospel was put together. Well, one gospel actually tells us: Luke's gospel. He tells us how he got his hands on older written material about Jesus, checked his facts, and put it all together. You can read it about it in a previous blog.

If anyone wants more of this I would recommend Paul Barnett's excellent and concise book "The Birth of Christianity - The First Twenty Years". Because this summary is owed to his work.

Other gospel-related blogs:

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?

Literacy of Jesus and his followers