Chinese Whispers: Did the Early Christians Exaggerate
the Ministry of Jesus Between the Time of Jesus'
Death and the Writing of the Gospels?
© Spotlight Ministries, 2003
Critics of the Gospels sometimes declare that they believe that the time between the death of Jesus (appx. 33 A.D.) and the date of the actual writing of the Gospels (appx. between 60 A.D. - 90 A.D.) allowed time for exaggeration and elaboration to creep in. Critics will say it is something like Chinese whispers. One person says one which in turn is passed on to someone else. They in turn pass this on to another and more elaboration is added on, and so on and so fourth. The end result is that the original story has been greatly changed. Is there any weight to this argument? A look at some of the evidences in support of the reliability of the Gospel texts show that there are actually many very good reasons for believing them to be accurate representations of the life of Jesus just as it happened.
- During the period when the Gospel writers wrote their accounts many eyewitnesses would still have been alive and would have objected if the Gospels were exaggerated in some way. This would be something like a group of people trying to fictionalise a whole series of events that happened during World War II. There are too many people still living who would be able to challenge inaccuracies.
- Similarly, as with the second world war the events that occurred were striking and significant, making long lasting impressions upon the minds of the people who went through the experience. This is even more so with the Gospels. The things that Jesus said and did would have had powerful impact and long lasting impression upon the memories of those who witnessed the events. The culture of Jesus' day held to `oral tradition'. People spent much time and effort in memorizing texts. Michael Green observes that many Jews memorized the whole Pentateuch and that there were Greeks who could recite large portions of Homer's Iliad (The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 124).
- As the Jews were expecting a political leader rather than a miracle worker, it would not have helped the disciples cause to present Jesus as a miracle worker.
- Other non-Christian historical sources verify some of the people and events described in the Gospels. For example:
- If the disciples fabricated the stories of Jesus then why did they include material that could have been potentially embarrassing to the Church? Surely, if these stories had been changed as time went on they would have omitted such sections in the Gospels. Examples of these are: Peter's denial of Christ, Jesus' apparent difficulty in healing a blind man, many disciples deserting Jesus because of His hard teachings, His family believing He was out of His mind, being unable to do miracles in His home town because of people's lack of faith in Him, etc. Even the crucifixion itself was a difficult thing for the Christians. It would have been easier for them to have left this out rather than keep it in the Gospels had they been fabricated. Crucifixion in the ancient world was for slaves and criminals. Consequently, the early Christians had difficulty in presenting this message to people who were familiar with it. It would have been far easier to have left all this out had they made the stories up.
- If the disciples fabricated the stories of Jesus then why did they include material that was an issue to them? The early Church faced many difficulties regarding doctrine and Church order. Examples of these are: circumcision, speaking in tongues and spiritual gifts, divorcing when deserted by an unbelieving spouse, meat offered to idols, etc. If the early Church had fabricated the life of Jesus they would have had a golden opportunity to add their own solutions to these difficult problems, but, as the Gospels stand, there is no record of these issues being tackled.
- Why should anyone assume that the Gospels are fabricated? We do not do this with other historical documents, so why the Gospels? Paul Copan points out in his book, "True for You But Not For Me", that we listen to what someone says as being factual and truthful and only have cause to doubt them if something arouses our suspicions. Historians approach ancient documents this way and take an `innocent until proven guilty' approach. Interestingly, it is most often the case that historians are more likely to accept the Gospels as basically true and reliable documents whereas liberal scholars, who are not experts as historians, are more likely to approach the Gospels with an already presupposed scepticism.
- If the Gospels had been fabricated by Jesus' disciples why did they put such high demands on themselves by putting their own words and concepts into the mouth of Jesus? Surely, if the disciples themselves were responsible for putting their own words into Jesus' mouth they would have allowed themselves more freedom for their own ends.
- Gospels based on earlier written accounts: "undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Lk.1:1-2).
- The Gospels are all set in an historical, geographical, cultural, religious, and political context, and reflect this in their contents.
Copan, P. "True for you but not for Me." Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998.
Green, M. (ed.). The Truth of God Incarnate. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.
I must also give credit to the web page below for some of the information in this article:
Related Articles (external links):
The Real Jesus of History by Joel Stephen Williams.
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