For example, with respect to our country, it shows that the Father of this country was an honest man, one who would never lie. How honest was he? Well, one time when he was a boy. Moreover, many people tell the story because they think it teaches an important lesson in personal ethics. If you do something wrong, you should just admit it and not compound the problem by lying about it. This is a lesson we want our children to learn.
It is important never to lie. It is a true story.
And so scholars today describe the phenomenon that Strauss has in mind by using other kinds of terminology. But the basic idea that he advanced is one that is very widely held today among critical scholars of the New Testament. The Gospels contain stories that did not literally happen. We know that for reasons I will be laying out in a second.
Let me explain how all this works by taking just one example out of a huge number of possibilities. This is a story that simply cannot be historically accurate the way it is narrated, but that is attempting to convey a true understanding of Jesus in the view of the author. The example has to do with the death of Jesus as it is narrated in the Gospel of John. First, let me stress a point that I will be making a bit more fully later: the Gospels certainly do contain historically important information about Jesus, especially when it comes to the very broad outlines of what he said, did, and experienced.
That basic story is reported in all the Gospels, and I think it is almost certainly right. But many of the details of the Gospel accounts cannot be right. To make sense of what I want to say, I have to explain just a little bit of historical background. It is important to know what the Passover feast of the Jews was all about as the context within which Jesus made his last fateful trip to Jerusalem.
Passover was and is an annual Jewish festival celebrating the greatest event in the history of the ancient Israelites, their deliverance by God, through Moses, from their slavery in Egypt. You can find the story in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus. We are told that the people of Israel had migrated down to Egypt to escape a famine in the Promised Land. In Egypt they became a numerous people, and out of a fear of their numbers, the Egyptians enslaved them. The children of Israel had been in Egypt for years when God finally heard their cries and raised up for them a savior, Moses.
Moses was empowered by God to do miracles against the Egyptians in order to convince the ruler, Pharaoh, to let the people go. Moses was instructed to have every Israelite family sacrifice a lamb, and to spread the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of their house. They Israelites all did so, and it happened. Throughout the land there were massive deaths. Pharaoh realized that he was dealing with an implacable power and sent the people away; they made a hasty escape.
Pharaoh then had second thoughts and chased them to the Red Sea. God did then another great miracle, parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites, but bringing the waters back with a vengeance in order to drown the Egyptian army.
Ehrman's Statement: The New Testament Gospels Are Historically Unreliable Accounts of Jesus
This then was the Exodus event. Hundreds of years later, in the days of Jesus, the Passover was celebrated by Jews throughout the world, but especially in the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the temple of the Jews was, the only place where animal sacrifice could be practiced. At the Passover pilgrims from around the world would arrive, a week early, in order to prepare for the celebration, which involved a special meal in which the Jewish households would eat a lamb and a number of other symbolic foods, including unleavened bread and several cups of wine.
Now, here is the only tricky part of this historical background.
It is important crucial! For Jews, the new day begins not at midnight as for most of the rest of us , but when it gets dark. The beginning of the new day comes when the stars come out. Then, when it became dark, the next day was begun, the day of Passover itself, starting with the Passover meal. That evening, after it gets dark, they eat with Jesus the Passover meal. Jesus spends the night in jail, is put on trial early the next morning, is condemned, and is then crucified at am, on the day of Passover, the morning after he had eaten the meal Mark Our final Gospel to be written was John possibly around 90—95 CE, some 20 years or so after Mark, and about 60—65 years after the death of Jesus.
Here, too, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover.
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Here, too, he eats a last meal with his disciples John 13— But in this account the disciples never ask Jesus where he wants them to prepare for the Passover meal, and the meal is not described as a Passover meal. Moreover, in John Jesus does not take the Passover foods of bread and cup and instill any new significance in them. The Day of Preparation for the Passover? In John Jesus dies the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, when preparations were underway for the meal that evening; in the earlier account of Mark, Jesus actually ate the meal with his disciples that evening and was killed the next day.
It may seem like a small detail, and in many ways it is. But why the difference? Scholars have long known the answer to that question. He has changed a historical datum in order to convey this truth.
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For John, Jesus himself is like the Passover lamb. He dies on the same day the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. These sacrifices in that time were begun after noon. John, in other words, has changed the story to make his point. For John, the point is not a history lesson of something that took place one Spring day in 30 CE. The point is that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
John has changed the story to make it less historically accurate, but more theologically correct in his view. David Friedrich Strauss would say that the Gospels are chock full of those kinds of stories, stories that are not and cannot be historically accurate. This particular example I have given involves just a tiny little detail which day Jesus died on, and at what time of day. And the reason it matters is because this kind of thing happens all over the place in the Gospels.
To show that this is the case would take far more time and space than I have here. And even there, I am also simply scratching the surface. Each of the Gospels is completely anonymous: their authors never announce their names. The titles we read in the Gospels e. But for well over a century scholars have realized that these opinions are almost certainly wrong.
The followers of Jesus were uneducated, lower-class, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee; these books, however, were written by highly educated and well trained, Greek-speaking, elite Christians living in cities in other locations.
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They were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and do not ever claim to be. Where then did they get their stories? This is the second point to stress.
This means that the Gospel writers are recording stories that had been told and retold month after month, year after year, decade after decade, among Christians living throughout the Roman empire, in differing places, in different times, even in different languages. My most recent book, Jesus Before the Gospels HarperOne, , explains what appears to have happened to these stories that had been in oral circulation for all those years before any of our authors wrote them down.
The stories changed. How could they not change? Think about it for a second. It takes up fully three chapters of the Gospel it is not found in any of the other three. But Matthew was writing his account some 50 years or so after the sermon was allegedly given. How would he know what was said? Give it some thought. Suppose you were supposed to write down a speech that you yourself had listened to a while ago. Suppose it was a speech delivered by a presidential candidate last month.
If you had no notes, but just your memoryhow well would you do? That was only seven years ago. How well would you do? How well would you do with the first "State of the Union" addressed delivered by Lyndon Johnson? When I was in graduate school, we always learned that it was completely different in oral cultures.
That in cultures where there is no writing, people remember things better, since they more or less have to. I have now read extensively in this research, and I can tell you the claim is bogus.
You can read the research for yourself; it is all very interesting. What this scholarship has consistently shown is that our unreflective assumptions about oral cultures are simply not right.