Stephen Motyer's Second Followup Email


Dear Steven,

Thank you again for a series of powerful and challenging points - and thank you again for your openness in inviting this debate on your web-page. I hope others are enjoying it.

In this email I shall respond to some of your points by clarifying what I am not saying (sometimes the negative can help sharpen the positive), then present some general arguments, and then finish with a couple of issues of detail.

WHAT I'M NOT SAYING

I am not arguing that Christianity did not develop over its first two centuries. It changed enormously during this period.

Nor am I arguing that there was no variety in early Christianity. There were many groups which differed greatly from each other, and this variety is reflected within the New Testament itself. As time went on a sense of the 'irreducible minimum' for authentic Christian faith grew up, based on apostolic doctrine, but Christianity has always been able to accommodate variety around that irreducible minimum (albeit uncomfortably).

Nor am I suggesting that the differences between the Gospels are insignificant. You point out lots of places where Matthew and Luke modify Mark. I could add many more. Each of the Gospel-writers had their own perspective, from which they present the story of Jesus. It is a matter of dispute amongst scholars (as you know), whether the Gospel-writers were consciously in competition with each other. I think the evidence favours a co-operative attempt to supplement each other, rather than a competitive attempt to replace each other. More of this in my third email.

Nor am I arguing that the Gospels provide us with the same pin-point, detailed accuracy which we would expect from modern biographies. As you say, a comparison of them with each other shows that they were not greatly interested in details of chronology, etc.

Nor am I arguing that all Christians were interested in the historical Jesus. There were even Christian groups (of a Gnostic stamp) for whom the historical Jesus was an embarrassment, rather than an asset, because of their belief in the unmixability of flesh and spirit. They preferred to believe in a 'talking head' Jesus, rather than a person of flesh and blood.

Nor am I suggesting that the first Christians did not lay central emphasis on a 'cosmic Christ'. They certainly did, as we see so clearly from Paul, Hebrews and Revelation. For these New Testament writers, the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God following his death and resurrection is the centre of their faith - as indeed it is for Christians today.

Nor am I arguing that there were lots of oral traditions circulating which back up the Gospels. My point in mentioning Papias was simply to underline the fact of oral tradition. Quite clearly, oral tradition encompassed many stories and sayings which are not in the four Gospels, and which need to be evaluated historically.

Nor am I arguing that, contrary to appearances, the Gospels were the leading formative influence in early Christianity. They were not. I agree with you that the earliest post-New Testament writings (the Didache, 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius) clearly look to Paul and to a new Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament for their chief inspiration, rather than to the Gospels.

This points to something remarkable about Jesus himself, and the way the first Christians (in spite of their variety) thought of their relation to him. Unlike most other great religious leaders or philosophers (and particularly, in this context, unlike Moses), he did not leave a great body of 'law' or 'orthodox views', as you put it, for his followers to observe.

His distinctive method of teaching was the parable, which he used to picture the coming of 'the Kingdom of God' in and through him, employing stories and pictures drawn from every-day life. The arrival of the Kingdom of God was revolutionary, but its effect was to invite people into a new set of family relationships - with himself, with God, with each other and with the world - and not to impose a new set of rules and regulations. Jesus simply modelled these new relationships in the life-style he adopted with his disciples, and told stories about the Kingdom.

After his death his followers developed deeper insights into the relationship between him and God, particularly after Pentecost, and thus were faced with the challenge of working out their 'following' of Jesus without a list of detailed instructions from him about how they should do it. This is how Paul was able to take the basic idea of the new (Kingdom) relationship with God and with others, made possible by Jesus, and translate it into new language appropriate for the Gentile world, building on his (and others') insight into the reasons for Jesus' death and resurrection.

So finally - as you can see! - I am not arguing that, contrary to appearances, Paul saw himself as a transmitter of the teachings of Jesus. He did not. He saw himself as "an apostle of Christ Jesus", commissioned to make real, for non-Jews, the 'Gospel' message of the new relationship with God which had been made possible through the death and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Spirit.

So you may be surprised to find me agreeing with you about 1 Corinthians 2:2! When Paul writes there, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified", I think you are right to draw from this the implication that Paul did not see himself as a purveyor of information about the life of Jesus, but as a proclaimer of a particular understanding of the death of Jesus.

SO - WHAT AM I SAYING?

You helpfully begin your second email with a statement of your 'main argument' and its supporting evidence.

In response my main argument is (a) that the evidence of Paul, Hebrews and the post-New Testament writings, while important, is strictly irrelevant, for they did not write the Gospels, and we need to ask whether those who did write them give a credibly reliable portrait; and (b) that there is plenty of evidence to support the view that, in broad terms, we may trust the picture of Jesus given by the Gospels.

My evidence for these points is the following:

(1) The sheer variety within early Christianity.

Even if I were to agree completely with what you say about Paul and the early church, the very existence of the Gospels would still testify to a group or groups of Christians who did not make a water-tight distinction between "the cosmic Christ" they believed in, and the historical Jesus. They believed in an identity between the two, so that their faith in the "cosmic Christ" actually reinforced their interest in the facts of his life.

Your emphasis on the faith of the early church and its focus on Jesus' death, resurrection and exaltation to heaven is quite right. But clearly those who produced the Gospels were also interested in his career prior to these great events. If all the first Christians were like your portrait of Paul, rejecting knowledge of the historical Jesus as irrelevant in comparison with the experience of the Spirit, then the Gospels would surely never have been written. What need would there be for them?

You challenge the reliability of the accounts because of their mutual dependence, and because of the differences between them (I'll tackle this in my next email), but I'm sure you'll agree that their very existence testifies to an historical interest in 'Jesus', and to belief in a real identity between the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith' - however unreliable the result of their efforts!

However I don't believe their efforts were that unreliable:

(2) Luke's Preface (Luke 1:1-4)

I mentioned the importance of this in my opening statement, and I don't think you've responded to my comments except to say that Luke couldn't have done very good research, since he did not know Aramaic.

On this particular point, I think you underestimate the extent to which Greek was a 'lingua franca' in the first century, even in country areas like Galilee. The basic research here was done by J.N. Sevenster in the 60's. Jewish tombs, even in Jerusalem, bear Greek inscriptions as well as Hebrew. Galilee was a cosmopolitan area. Jesus would almost certainly have spoken Greek as well as Aramaic, and so in all likelihood would his disciples.

So Luke would not have faced a language-barrier in conducting the research to which he refers in his Preface. And his Preface clearly testifies (a) to his awareness of the need for research, (b) to his concern for accuracy and order in his account, and (c) to the efforts which he claims to have invested in order to achieve (b).

You yourself regard Luke as "a good historian of the Gentile world" (in your opening statement). You point to a few apparent errors, but is it not reasonable to assume that Luke has tried to achieve the same accuracy in his Gospel as historians generally agree he has tried to achieve in his depiction of the Graeco-Roman world in Acts?

(3) The recognition of Jesus as a sage and prophet.

In this point I draw upon some research by Rainer Riesner, a young German scholar.

Jesus certainly did not look like the second person of the Trinity! Generally those who encountered him quickly classified him as a 'sage', that is, as a Rabbi who, like many other such, gathered a group of disciples around him to discuss the law. This much is clear from the broad presentation of him in the Gospels.

As they got to know Jesus better, however, people quickly realised that he was a most unusual sage. Actually he was not much interested in discussing the interpretation of the law. He taught a great deal in public, rather than just his disciples, and "taught as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:29). So it is also clear that people quickly recognised a prophet-like authority about this particular sage (Mark 6:2, Luke 7:16, Matt. 21:11, Mark 11:28).

The second century (so-called) Pseudo-Clementine Homilies attest the existence of groups of Jewish Christians for whom the identification of Jesus as a prophet was the core of their faith. This surely points to the way in which many Jews saw him during his ministry including perhaps many who did not commit themselves to being active 'disciples'.

But what of those who did become disciples of this sage and prophet, whom they believed was speaking wisdom from God? The Old Testament prophets generated groups of disciples who preserved their oracles and formed collections of them. Similarly, Jewish sources reveal that the 'learners' who gathered around sages were expected (hardly surprising, really) to 'learn' the teaching of the wise man to whom they had committed themselves.

Jesus was certainly an unusual Rabbi, but it is hardly likely that one of the differences between him and other Rabbis was that he didn't care whether his disciples learned his teaching or not! The Gospels frequently refer to him 'teaching' them (e.g. Mark 4:34), the disciples ask him for teaching (e.g. Luke 11:1), he tells them to learn (Mark 13:28), and they discuss points they don't understand (Mark 9:10).

In addition, even during his ministry, he sent them out on missions extending his teaching (and healing) to others (Mark 3:14, 6:6-13; Luke 10:1-17).

When you add to this the facts (a) that Jesus' teaching was highly memorable - pithy aphorisms, vivid stories etc - and (b) that it had a very simple central message ("the Kingdom of God is near", see Luke 10:9-11), and (c) that Jewish education focused upon training the memory and learning by heart, then you have a pretty potent mixture which will surely create a presumption that his teaching will have been remembered well.

You will object that this is an 'a priori' argument which needs to test itself against the actual texts of the Gospels, and face the objections which you have already posed. I agree. I will try to do this in my third email.

You might also object that this argument seems to relate only to his teaching, leaving plenty of room for the stories of his 'deeds' to be altered and extended. I would reply that, for those who identified Jesus as a prophet, his actions were as important as his words, for the actions of a prophet were regarded as acted 'words'. So when Jesus sent out his disciples, they were supposed to perform the deeds that marked him out, as well as preach his message.

I think, therefore, that his disciples were as keen to remember his prophetic 'signs' as they were to remember his parables and aphorisms.

This email is already over-long! I will just finish with -

A COUPLE OF FINAL POINTS

Thank you for picking me up on the point about the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Gospels. My statement about this was too sweeping. The facts are that the three earliest, and most significant, manuscripts of the Gospels date from the period 175-225 CE. The so-called p45 originally contained all four Gospels and Acts, but only 30 leaves out of approximately 220 survive, including fragments of all four Gospels. p66 contains most of John's Gospel (chs 17-21 are largely missing). p75 contains most of Luke and of John (Luke 1-2, 19-21 and John 15-21 are missing), but evidence suggests that it originally contained Matthew and Mark as well.

Recently T.C. Skeat, a leading expert in this field, has discovered evidence that points to an earlier manuscript of all four Gospels, although only small fragments of it remain. Held in three separate museums (in Oxford, Barcelona and Paris), p64, p67 and p4 are all in fact fragments of one manuscript which originally held all four Gospels, and dates from the last part of the second century. His evidence was published last year in the journal 'New Testament Studies'.

The earliest fragment altogether is p72, from a 'Ccodex' of John's Gospel, dated by experts to around 125 CE. T.C. Skeat believes that the early Christians 'remarkable enthusiasm for the 'Codex' (books made out of leaves written on both sides and stitched together at the edge), rather than the traditional book-roll, arose from their desire to have more than one Gospel bound together. More than one Gospel would make a very cumbersome roll. But outside Christian circles, the roll was the standard form of book-production for another two hundred years.

Finally, I think you are a bit hard on Paul when you sweep aside his reference to the 500 witnesses of the risen Christ. He really wants to rub home to the Corinthians that Jesus rose bodily from death. So he himself adds that "most of [the 500] are still living, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:6). True, he doesn't give names and addresses, but the implication is pretty clear. The Corinthians can check it out.

Stephen Motyer
London Bible College


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