The Historicity of the Gospels: Bart Ehrman’s Skeptical View

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaen

The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens (Louvre Museum)

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman begins with a story from his days as a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s. He tells how, as part of the practical Christian ministry component of his education, he served as a youth pastor at a church in a suburb of Chicago and developed a close mentoring relationship with the senior pastor there.

At that time, Moody was a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism—a late-19th- and 20th-century reaction to liberal currents in Protestant theology. Protestant liberals sought to adapt their theology to developments in the sciences and social sciences, including critical historical analysis of the Bible and evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists rejected this adaptation in favor of biblical literalism and an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible.

After his Fundamentalist beginnings, Ehrman pursued advanced degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary. He recounts how, during those studies, he came to doubt some of the central tenets of orthodox Christian theology, including the divinity of Jesus. He was impressed by the fact that Jesus is only rarely referred to as divine in the New Testament, and that Jesus only ever refers to himself as divine in the Gospel of John—the historicity of which is often viewed as dubious.

While wrestling with these doubts, he returned to Chicago to visit his former pastor, in the hope of receiving some guidance. The pastor responded by encouraging him to “hold on to the basics,” and by quoting Jesus’s claim in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Ehrman responded, “But what if Jesus never said that?”

I suspect that many Christians have asked that question before, if not of this particular passage in John then more generally of Jesus’s teachings in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). I also suspect that many who have consciously rejected Christian faith (as Ehrman has) have done so at least in part because of similar doubts about the historicity of the Gospels. After all, if the link between the teachings of the church and the life of Jesus is broken, Christianity seems a lot less compelling.

In this post, I will begin to lay out Ehrman’s doubts about the historical reliability of the Gospels as expressed in Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God and begin to respond to them. I will continue to explain his doubts and respond to them in future posts. My plan is to write a series of posts in running dialogue with his book, since I think the book raises many helpful and interesting questions.

Authorship of the Gospels: The Traditional View

In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Ehrman raises several reasons for doubting the historicity of the Gospels. First, he suggests that the traditional view of who wrote the Gospels is false.

According to that traditional view, Matthew was written by the tax collector and disciple of Jesus mentioned in that Gospel (Matthew 9:9), Mark was written by the secretary of Jesus’s disciple Peter, Luke was written by a physician and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and John was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as mentioned in that Gospel (e.g., John 13:23).

From a historical perspective, the value of this traditional view is that it connects the writing of the Gospels quite closely to Jesus. Except for Luke, on the traditional view the Gospels were all written either by one of Jesus’s original disciples who were eyewitnesses of his life and teachings, or by someone under the direct guidance of one of those disciples.

And insofar as the Apostle Paul is understood to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and to have had close contact with the original disciples of Jesus (e.g., Acts 15:1-35, Galatians 2:1-10), even Luke is viewed traditionally as written under the authority of someone with a similar personal connection to Jesus. If true, this close link between the authors and Jesus lends historical credibility to the Gospels.

Doubts about the Traditional View

Ehrman rejects the traditional view, however. He correctly notes that the Gospels are anonymous: the authors do not mention their own names in the manuscripts (unlike Paul’s letters, for example). Ehrman claims the traditional attributions are likely wrong since the New Testament describes the followers of Jesus as lower-class, uneducated speakers of Aramaic from Palestine, while the Gospels were clearly written by educated (and therefore not lower-class) people fluent in Greek, not Aramaic. He also suggests that the authors were “Christians of a later generation,” and that “They probably wrote after Jesus’s disciples had all, or almost all, died” (p. 90).

If Ehrman is correct, here, then we ought to feel less sure that the Gospels accurately represent the historical ministry of Jesus, since Ehrman’s view implies that non-eyewitnesses authored the Gospels generations after Jesus lived and taught.

Beginning to Respond to Ehrman

Is Ehrman’s view well-founded? Many of Jesus’s first disciples likely were uneducated—for example, James and John (the “sons of Zebedee”) and Simon Peter are identified as fishermen in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 1:16-20). They likely would have been illiterate.

But, if we are to rely on the New Testament for a picture of Jesus’s early disciples (as Ehrman does in his criticism), it is clear that some educated, higher-class people also became Jesus’s disciples, even while he was alive. For example, Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple reported to have retrieved Jesus’s body from the cross and buried it, is described as “a respected member of the council” in Jerusalem (Mark 15:42-47). This position would hardly make him lower-class and uneducated. So, Ehrman’s implied view that all of Jesus’s early disciples were uneducated is false. There clearly could have been at least a few educated disciples who wrote the Gospels.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that Galilee—the region from which Jesus and his first disciples hailed—was home to many Greek-speakers, since it was on an important trade route (Hurtado and Owen, ‘Who is this Son of Man?’, p. 15). Thus, it is not out of the question that some of Jesus’s early followers spoke Greek, and therefore could have written the Gospels in Greek.

What about Ehrman’s claim that Christians “of a later generation” wrote the Gospels after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died? Since it would take too many pixels to respond well to this claim here, I’ll respond in my next few posts—one for each Gospel. Stay tuned!

9 thoughts on “The Historicity of the Gospels: Bart Ehrman’s Skeptical View

  1. Somehow I am less concerned about the historical veracity of what has been passed down to us than I am about the message. Any argument or questioning of this nature diminishes the deep and redemptive meaning which has been passed down to us. I am not particularly interested in the institutionalisation nor history of Christianity as much as I am fascinated by the simplicity of the message.

    I am also not too bothered by the who wrote what as that seems to me to be a particularly modern focus on the individual- a particularly new concept in our human advance. The collaborative evolution of the message of love and the dynamics of our human condition is, to me, the real gift of what we have received in it’s present interpretation and form. It is for us to take personal and group responsibility for the message as we live our lives together and singularly.

    I look forward to more of your thinking and investigation Aaron.

    • Thanks, Dad, as always, for your thoughtful response to my writing.

      I couldn’t agree more that actually living the message of Jesus is the most important thing, the “real gift” as you put it. Its importance greatly overshadows disputes about history and authorship.

      However, I don’t think that means the historical questions are unimportant. Both Christianity and Judaism are essentially historical religions. The central teachings of the two religions are grounded in what have generally been understood to be founding historical events. For Judaism, the event is the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. For Christianity, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus, which promises forgiveness and a different kind of deliverance (namely, deliverance from the inward enslavement of our minds to sin, or “unloving” activity). If these events never happened, then it seems we should rightly question whether God is really a delivering God, whether God has really forgiven us, and whether God is really in the process of renewing our minds; perhaps these are, at best, just comforting figures of speech that make (some of) us feel better as we go through life.

      To come at this from an angle more related to Ehrman’s book and the issues I’m engaging, since the beginning Christians have thought that who Jesus is mattered a lot–not just his teachings about how to live. Christians have believed Jesus to be God’s divine messiah–an incarnation of God himself, evidencing God’s delivering love for people in a concrete way. This has been a central part of the Christian teaching since the first century. But, if Jesus didn’t really think or teach that–or if his self-understanding and teachings didn’t strongly imply it–then it’s not clear we should believe it, even if it is somehow comforting. (I think the proper object of belief is truth, even if it’s uncomfortable.) And, of course, this is a historical question, namely, what exactly Jesus thought and taught.

      Ehrman’s point in questioning the authorship (and more broadly the historical value) of the Gospels is, ultimately, to question the church’s teachings about Jesus. If the authors of the Gospels never knew Jesus and lived long after him, can we really trust them to tell us the truth about Jesus? How would they even know what Jesus said and thought? I agree with you that authorship is quite a modern issue (that it was not important to the Gospel writers is clear from the fact that they wrote anonymously!), but insofar as it is relevant to determining what Jesus actually taught (Did the writers know him? How well? Could they have remembered what he taught?), I don’t think the modernity of the issue makes it unimportant. After all, we moderns have to appropriate the message too.

      Now, your response to all this might still be, “I don’t care where the teaching comes from, I just want the teaching.” And I can see why you might say that about the ethical teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; it just seems to work better when we do that. But, I’m not sure why you’d want to believe all the stuff about forgiveness, deliverance, renewal, messiahship, and divinity, which are also central to the Christian teaching. Unless God has revealed those things in and through Jesus, they look like wishful thinking. If, instead, I jettison all the teachings except the injunction to love my neighbor, it’s not clear to me that I can still think of myself as Christian. After all, there is nothing distinctively Christian about loving one’s neighbor; many other religions also prize love of neighbor, as you well know.

      In short (or in long!), if we think there is something special about Jesus himself–something essential to Christian faith–then we are stuck with historical questions, and skeptical historical claims have considerable power to undermine Christian faith. Since I think there is something special about Jesus himself, I think we need to address the historical questions, as I’m beginning to do in this series of posts.

  2. With respect to the level of education and training received by Jesus’ disciples, it should be noted that they were trained and educated by THE most intelligent entity who ever set foot on this planet. The disciples’ Professor, the man Jesus, was Himself at age 12 instructing the scholars of the day and blowing them away with His brilliance and with how He shed light on the meaning of all Scripture.

    Moreover, the book of Acts implies that the disciples themselves were also able to amaze the educated upper class who observed how the disciples were able to teach/inform/instruct with great confidence despite being otherwise “uneducated/untrained.” Indeed, the very display of the disciples’ ability to deliver highly educated arguments and make sense of Scripture as if they themselves were trained instructors, despite being otherwise uneducated, was itself a hallmark of having been with Jesus the Great Teacher, as the following Scripture implies:

    “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.” (Acts‬ ‭4:13‬ ‭NASB‬‬)

    • Thanks, David.

      I think the key thing that Ehrman is concerned about is whether any of Jesus’s disciples would have been capable of writing the elegant Greek on display in, e.g., the Gospel of Luke. This kind of writing ability is probably less likely to be picked up at the feet of an itinerant preacher like Jesus, no matter how intelligent he is (and I agree with you that Jesus was surely a towering intellect). So, the thought is that they would have required a more formal education that included learning to read and write.

  3. Hello Aaron,

    It has been a long time my friend. I am currently taking a course on Messianic Jewish Theology. In the class Dr. Daniel Juster notes two books that you should check out regarding the divinity of Yeshua/Jesus. The first is God Crucified by Richard Baukham, and the second is One God One Lord by Larry Hurtado. In my personal studies these last five years or so I am astounded how much I personally miss in reading scripture when I fail to understand Judaism and perhaps more importantly first century Jewish context. Blessings on you and your family!

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Joseph! I agree that the Jewish context of scripture is essential to a thorough understanding of it. Sounds like a great class. Blessings upon you and your family too. And thanks for reading.

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