Stephen Motyer's Third Followup Email


Dear Steven,

You raise lots of points to deal with. I'm afraid this email goes beyond the suggested word-limit! I apologise.

You fire five charges at the Gospels, I think - namely:

ARAMAIC OR GREEK?

You devote a lot of your last email to refuting my comment about Greek as a 'lingua franca'. I probably need to clarify that I do not deny the Aramaic roots of much of Jesus' teaching. Many Gospel sayings can easily be translated back into Aramaic because they retain semitic idioms even in their Greek form. The evidence suggests that, in lower Galilee where Jesus' ministry was based, Aramaic was the first language of the ordinary people, while Greek was used for trade and, in the bigger centres like Tiberias and Sepphoris, for education also.

You rightly point out that Jesus avoided these bigger centres. But he would still have spoken in Greek to the centurion (Matt 8) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15), and the trials before Herod and Pilate would have been conducted in Greek (Luke 23). 'Hellenization' (the spread of Greek culture and language) had been going on in Palestine for 350 years - resisted fiercely by some, but pretty pervasive nonetheless.

Greek was indeed a 'lingua franca'. The 'tongues' on the day of Pentecost were not employed to cross language barriers but just to express praise. When Peter stood up to communicate with that mixed crowd, he used the language common to them all - Greek. Conversely Paul, addressing a crowd of Jerusalemites in Jerusalem, used Aramaic when they expected Greek, and so gained a better hearing (Acts 22:2).

So the situation was very mixed. My point was simply that Luke would not have faced a substantial language problem in his research.

Now to your objections.

(1) THE GOSPELS' DEPENDENCE ON EACH OTHER

Yes, it is true that 95% of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and Luke: 609 of Mark's 662 verses reappear in Matthew, and 357 in Luke. In addition, about 250 verses appear just in Matthew and Luke (the so-called 'Q' material). This may have been a written source used by both Matthew and Luke, but this is uncertain, because about 90 of these 'Q' verses differ greatly in wording between the two Gospels (for instance, the two versions of the parable of the Great Supper, Matt 22:1-10 and Luke 14:15-24).

Probably the 'Q' material was drawn from a mixture of written and oral sources, though there is no agreement among scholars about this. But if we assume that it all came from a written source, then 50% of Luke (570 of his 1150 verses) and 81% of Matthew (870 of his 1069 verses) came from these two written sources together, Mark and 'Q'. This leaves 50% and 29% respectively derived from other sources, again presumably both oral and written. In the case of John, of course, the percentage of independent material is much higher.

Why should this dependence in itself undermine the Gospels' credibility? We could imagine parallel news reports on BBC and ITN both based on the same off-the-record briefing in Whitehall. Each will give their own 'spin', but the fact of their dependence on the briefing does not in itself make their reports unreliable - quite the opposite.

It all depends on the reliability of the original report. This is where I would argue that Luke's period of careful research is important. Why should we regard Luke 1:1-4 as mere window-dressing? I would take Josephus equally seriously when he says that he has done his best to "state the facts accurately and impartially", while at the same time making his own views and reactions clear (this is from his Jewish War 1:9). This does not guarantee total accuracy, of course, either for Josephus or for Luke, but it attests an intention (in line with contemporary norms) which we must take seriously.

So it looks as though both Matthew and Luke give their stamp of general approval to Mark by using him so extensively. Perhaps, by the time they wrote, Mark had already been quite widely distributed as the reminiscences of Peter, and Matthew and Luke both seek in different ways to supplement Mark (though not uncritically, as you point out).

Generally, Matthew and Luke shorten Mark's stories. They do not embellish them. For instance, the composite story of Jairus' daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage is told in 395 words (23 verses) in Mark, 285 words (17 verses) in Luke, and 138 words (9 verses) in Matthew. This is achieved by some deliberate compression - e.g. in Matthew Jairus announces at the start that his daughter has just died, so that the messengers can be cut out of the story (Matt 9, Mark 5, Luke 8).

It is interesting that both Matthew and Luke generally reproduce Mark in order. Material from Mark is not scattered here and there in their Gospels - unlike the 'Q' material - but appears in the same order, slotted into other material. There are some exceptions to this, most notably the story of Jesus' rejection in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:16-30). Luke has moved this to the beginning of Jesus' ministry and tells the story at much greater length, because it serves for him as a summary of what Jesus' ministry was all about.

I'll say a bit more about this later.

(2) LITERARY PARALLELS

Literary parallels, of the sort to which you refer, can be explained in three ways.

Either the later incident has been invented as an 'echo' of the earlier, or the parallel is purely coincidental, or there is a 'referential' relationship between them - i.e. the later incident is being explained in some way by deliberate allusion to the earlier.

I could well imagine, 300 years from now, an extensive scholarly discussion about the Kennedy assassinations (John and Robert). Surely these are duplicate versions of the same event? The parallels are too close: same name, same association with the presidency, same murder weapon, same charges of conspiracy ... If only 'invention' is allowed as a way of explaining the parallels between the newspaper reports, then scholars will have to dismiss Robert Kennedy's assassination as a literary creation.

In this case, of course, the parallels are just horribly coincidental. I think coincidence probably explains the parallels between the release of Peter from prison and the release of Dionysus' dancing worshippers in Euripides' Bacchae, and indeed the parallels between Jairus' daughter and the Shunammite woman's son in 2 Kings 4.

Similarly, future historians might dismiss the accounts of the 19th-century migrations of ex-slaves from Alabama to Chicago, on the grounds that the 'negro spirituals' associated with these migrations drew deeply on the picture of the Exodus and the journey to the promised land. Surely that potent biblical image has given rise to the supposed real journey?

No - in this case the relationship is 'referential' or (more accurately) 'typological'.

I'm not suggesting that 'invention' is never the explanation. Personally I think it is quite possible that the story of Jesus being strengthened by an angel in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43f) has crept into the Gospel tradition from 1 Kings 19:5-7 and Daniel 10:17f. I'm simply arguing that all three possible explanations need to be borne in mind. We cannot conclude 'invention' just because a parallel is found. Each case needs to be examined carefully and individually.

(3) ACCESS TO 'PRIVATE' EVENTS

Here again each case needs to be looked at individually.

It is perfectly possible that Jesus himself told the story of his temptations in the Judean desert. The Samaritan woman certainly told the story of her conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus was probably not alone with Jesus. The disciples in Gethsemane undoubtedly heard Jesus praying, before they fell asleep. They did their best to stay awake, after all! Claudius Lysias' letter could have been supplied by a 'mole' (remember Paul's nephew prompted the writing of the letter). The message from Pilate's wife to her husband (Matt. 27:19) was carried by a slave who would surely have spread it around the slave-quarters.

I'm not arguing in a super-conservative fashion "could have been - therefore was". I'm simply saying that these explanations are just as possible as that invention has taken place, and therefore the charge based on knowledge of private events has to be 'not proven'.

(4) THE PICTURE OF JESUS IN 'Q'

You just make this point briefly in your last email: "These 230 or so verses are very interesting. Not one of them uses the word 'Christ', or has any knowledge of the death of Jesus. Here we have a large block of identifiable Christian material, identifiable from the Gospels themselves, which has a radically different view of Jesus."

This argument is like the strange political logic which first defined Northern Ireland by drawing a boundary around the Protestant population of Ulster, and then insisted that within that boundary the democratic will of the majority must prevail (I reveal my political prejudices here!)

By definition, 'Q' cannot contain an account of Jesus' death, for this occurs in all four Gospels, and 'Q' consists simply of the material common to just two of them. It is not even all that surprising that 'Q' consists almost wholly of sayings of Jesus (the centurion's servant is the only story - Matt 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10) - for Mark contains little teaching from Jesus, and the addition of teaching is one of the chief respects in which Matthew and Luke supplement Mark.

And, consisting almost wholly of Jesus' sayings, it is hardly surprising that he is not referred to as 'the Christ'. The synoptics all agree that he did not trumpet his claim to be the Messiah (but see below about John).

In any case, if 'Q' was in fact a written document, then we have no way of knowing what else it may have contained, in addition to the material quoted from it by Matthew and Luke. Mark may have used it. It may have contained a passion narrative. It may have contained other miracle stories. Its distinctive theology, therefore (which it will undoubtedly have had, if it existed) is beyond recovery.

(5) THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE GOSPELS

This seems to be the point on which you most rest your case against the reliability of the Gospels. It is easy to point to contradictions between them. A good case can be made for impulses to preserve, rather than distort, the Gospel traditions, as I tried to argue in my last email, but we must still reckon with the facts that (a) some 30-50 years of constant 'use' elapses between the events and the Gospels, and (b) the ancient world worked with a different idea of 'accuracy' from ours.

Do the differences between the Gospels substantially undermine their reliability? It depends what sort of 'reliability' you are looking for. I'll say more about this in my closing statement, and in the meantime make some comments about the various discernible reasons for these divergences.

* There are differences arising from the translation of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus taught chiefly in Aramaic, but from a very early time Greek versions of his saying circulated. We can well imagine that the translation into Greek, perhaps in different groups of Christians, produced different versions of the same saying. I think this may account, for instance, for the differences between the two versions of the parable of the pounds in Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27.

Similarly this may account for the difference between Matt. 5:48, where Jesus tells his disciples to be "perfect", and the parallel in Luke 6:36 where it is "merciful". One Aramaic word ('shelim') can produce both translations.

The influence of this translation process is actually incalculable, but it need no more damage the 'reliability' of the material than any translation does.

* There are differences arising from the repetition of teaching by Jesus.

Jesus will undoubtedly have repeated sayings and parables in different locations, possibly in different forms. Some differences between the Gospels may be traced to this factor. For instance, in Matt. 7:11 Jesus says that God will give "good things" to those who ask, but in Luke 11:13 it is "the Holy Spirit".

Similarly, in the same passages Jesus gives two examples of human giving, but there are three overall: in Matthew we have "which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?". In Luke we have, "which father among you, asked by his son for a fish, will give him a snake? or asked for an egg, will give him a scorpion?" (Luke 11:11-12). The differences may well arise from the frequent repetition of the teaching by Jesus.

But again, in itself this factor does not distance us from the real Jesus, unless we insist on asking for tape-recorded reproduction. That we will never have.

* There are differences arising from the use of the material by the first Christians.

This is probably the explanation for the differences between the two versions of the 'Lord's Prayer' in Matt 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4. Matthew seems to have had a special interest in instructing new converts, and probably reproduces the prayer in the form in which it had come to be used regularly in worship. Luke's version is more pithy and punchy, and probably more original.

The same factor probably applies to the differences between the accounts of the Last Supper. Here Luke (22) and Paul (1 Corinthians 11) represent one tradition, while Matthew (26) and Mark (14) represent another. We will never know what (Aramaic) words exactly Jesus spoke, but neither of these New Testament traditions are very far removed.

* There are differences arising from the re-application of Jesus' teaching in new situations.

Luke tends to use language more suitable for the Gentile readership he has in mind. This undoubtedly accounts for the different way in which he describes the digging of foundations and the storm in Luke 6:48 - in contrast to Matt. 7:24-25 where no foundations are dug (in Palestinian style) and the storm produces a flash-flood rather than a swollen river.

In other words, Luke is fully ready to adapt the imagery to communicate with his readers. But this surely doesn't make him 'unreliable'.

Another but different example is the parable of the Lost Sheep. In Luke 15:3-7 it is applied to outreach to the rejected members of society. But in Matt 18:12-14 it is applied to care for children within the church. Jesus may have used the parable in both connections. But it is perhaps more likely that Matthew has reapplied it, drawing out the principle that, among the followers of Jesus all the marginalised, including children, receive special care.

* There are differences arising from the arrangement of the material by the gospel-writers.

The 'Sermon on the Mount', for instance (Matthew 5-7) may have already existed as a collection of Jesus' teachings. The parallel material in Luke appears scattered in several places in his Gospel. Someone has drawn it together into a connected piece - either Matthew himself, or an earlier Christian teacher.

Matthew's love of arrangement, putting the teaching of Jesus into five great blocks in his Gospel, may explain the apparent contradiction between Matt. 10:10, where Jesus tells the twelve that they may not take sandals and a staff with them on their mission, and Mark 6:8-9 where he allows them sandals and a staff. It could well be that Matthew is combining the sending of the twelve with the sending of the seventy-two, kept separate in Luke 9 and 10, so as to draw the teaching into one discourse. In Luke 9:3 the twelve are allowed sandals but no staff, and in Luke 10:4 the seventy-two are allowed a staff but no sandals!

* There are differences which arise from lack of concern over details.

Maybe the last point should be included here also! The gospel-writers were clearly not too concerned to pull their accounts into tight harmonisation with each other. There are many instances of differences of detail within accounts which cohere with each other on a broader level.

For instance, the resurrection accounts are full of detailed divergences. Did the women come to the tomb before dawn or after it, did just one woman come or several, did they see one angel or two, was the angel inside the tomb or outside it, were the guards still there or not, did they meet Jesus on their way back to the disciples or not?

It would be possible to magnify the significance of these divergences. They do not undermine the united testimony of the Gospels that such remarkable events took place that morning that the disciples were left with the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact we could suggest that these divergences support the veracity of the accounts, because they are so obviously not contrived.

* There are differences arising from a desire to avoid giving wrong impressions.

You point to several examples of this. It certainly happens. Matthew and Luke tend to tone Mark down at points where he might be misunderstood. Matthew removes the reference to Jesus being "unable" to do any miracles in Nazareth (Mark 6:5, cf Matt. 13:58), and changes Mark 10:18 in case Jesus should be heard to deny his own goodness (cf Matt. 19:17).

He also seems to tone down the impression Mark gives that the disciples were incredibly slow to understand who Jesus was. Matthew presents them as trainee teachers and missionaries, whereas in Mark they are more 'ordinary', just people struggling to find faith. But surely they were both.

* There are differences arising from the distinctive emphases of each Gospel.

This point follows from the last. Like Josephus, the gospel-writers had their own perspectives and interests from which they present Jesus. Mark emphasises the challenges of discipleship. Matthew emphasises the fulfilment of Scripture, the relationship between Jesus and the law, and the life-style of the new Christian community. Luke emphasises prayer, Jesus' interest in society's outcasts, the role of women among his disciples, and his relevance for the Gentile world. At many points these interests shape the presentation.

Having a perspective does not in itself undermine 'reliability'. The perspective could be alien to the material itself - for instance, I could write a history of Mrs Thatcher's government from the perspective of my conviction that the moral fibre of her cabinet was eroded by their addiction to jelly-beans. But I would rightly be dismissed as a crank, because there is no appropriate convergence between my conviction and the subject-matter.

But in the case of the evangelists their 'perspectives' arise out of the material itself.

* There are differences which arise from a different conception of 'truth'.

Here finally I need to deal with John, although I think that all four evangelists work with a different concept of 'truth' from us.

John certainly writes from a 'perspective'. He wants to present Jesus as the answer to the needs of Jews in that dreadful period after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE). His whole account is angled towards his presentation of Jesus as, in himself, the rebuilt Temple around which Israel can be reconstituted.

The argument will rage on and on about the relationship between this 'theological' understanding of the significance of Jesus and the 'history' in which John tells the story. The differences between John and the synoptics are great, but:

(a) John bases his presentation around Jerusalem and Judea, rather than Galilee, perhaps drawing on southern traditions unused by the synoptics. The synoptics hint at ministry by Jesus in Judea and Jerusalem (e.g. Mark 14:49, Luke 10:38-42), but basically give the impression that he only travelled to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. John corrects this impression and fills out the picture.

(b) True, there are no formal 'parables' in John, but Jesus' language is no less pictorial. There are many informal parables.

(c) There are no exorcisms in John either, because John prefers to present one great cosmic exorcism of the powers of evil: "now will the prince of this world be cast out! (John 12:31). He thus presents what he sees as the underlying meaning of the synoptic exorcisms.

(d) Jesus does not veil his own identity in John, unlike the synoptics. He speaks openly about who he is. But his identity is still veiled, for people refuse to "see" who he really is. Thus John draws out what he sees to be the underlying meaning of the synoptic 'messianic secret': the blockages that hinder faith are within us, and do not arise from Jesus' self-veiling.

(e) It may indeed be true that 'I am' in Aramaic does not have the same possible overtones as 'ego eimi' in Greek, picking up the 'ego eimi' of Isaiah 43:25. I don't know enough Aramaic to confirm this. But because of his overall perspective, John hears deeper meaning than the synoptics in the Greek version of Jesus' saying, "Cheer up, it is I ('ego eimi'), don't be afraid" (Matt. 14:27, Mark 6:50, John 6:20), and develops this through a series of further 'I am' sayings.

(f) Above all John seeks to work with a concept of 'truth' (a favourite term of his) which goes beyond the mere external facts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and tries to lay bare what was REALLY going on in his ministry. He describes typical incidents, therefore, chosen written and arranged in order to challenge his readers to get under Jesus' skin. He uses the story to present the arguments both for and against his interpretation of Jesus, in order to tease his readers into a decision.

At the same time, therefore, he is both the most theological and the most historical of the Gospels. This may sound paradoxical. He is the most theological, in that he digs deeper into the meaning of Jesus than the others. He is the most historical, in that he insists that this meaning emerges from the proper interpretation of the actual events of Jesus' life - and he tries to argue this through, presenting the pros and cons of seeing Jesus in the way he does.

I wish I had more space to present this properly! But this email is already far too long. I agree that John is very different from the synoptics, and I think he raises profound questions about how we define the word "reliable". I'll try and explore that a bit in my closing statement.

Stephen Motyer
London Bible College


Steven Carr's Concluding Statement

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