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Have the Gospels been embellished?

March 22, 2014

Recently I was in public conversation with President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Dr. Meredith Doig. We had a very enjoyable and engaging dialogue on the nature of rationality and whether it is rational to read the Bible. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics but we spent some time discussing the prologue to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and the nature of the Gospels. Meredith felt she couldn’t trust the historical information contained in the Gospels primarily because the Gospels had been embellished and changed over many years.

This interaction got me thinking and I felt I needed to respond to the claim that the Gospels had been embellished.

1. The claim of embellishment is made with very little evidence. There is very little positive scholarly evidence to demonstrate wholesale embellishment of the Gospel narrative accounts. This claim is unfortunately often made based on conjecture rather than a solid evidential basis.

2. The main ’embellishment’ claimed about the Gospels often concerns the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. The common proposal is that Jesus was an exceptional man whose followers made even more exceptional over a period of time till, after a period of years they made him into a god and claimed he rose from the dead. Central to this proposal is that the claims to divinity and the resurrection were not originally present. Yet this is extremely unlikely. The earliest historical testimony to the resurrection predates the Gospels by almost 30 years. 1 Cor 15:3-4 is an early creed which contains an explicit reference to the resurrection of Jesus. This creed can be dated to, at latest, a couple of years after the events of his life. Hence belief in the resurrection did not emerge at the end of a long series of embellishments and improvements – it was present very close to the historical events. Similarly, there is evidence of Jesus’ divine status (a high Christology) in the earliest strata of Gospel material i.e. the Son of Man sayings in Mark. This renders a large hole in the assumption that the early church embellished Jesus to make him someone greater than he really was. Hence it appears very unlikely that the resurrection of Jesus and  his divine status were the end result of years of ‘improvements’ – these ideas were present in the earliest days of the church.

3. There is textual evidence against embellishment. Mark 2:1-12 and Matthew 9:2-8 narrate the same story of a paralytic whom Jesus heals. Assuming Markan priority i.e. that Mark was written first and hence Matthew used Mark as a source, then Matthew has shortened and simplified the pericope. Significantly Mathew has also removed the more ‘fantastic’ elements of the story i.e. the lowering of the paralytic through the roof. This is evidence against the claim that the Gospel writers were attempting to ’embellish’ their subjects. Furthermore, assuming that Matthew and Luke used Mark, we see many verbal parallels between the Gospels which indicate that the later writers (i.e. Matthew and Luke) were not attempting to embellish their sources (i.e. Mark). They were very careful with their sources, they repeat verbatim large parts of their sources. They modified their sources at times in a way which was consistent with their own style, audience and purpose, but these were not wholesale attempts at ’embellishing’ the story.

4. The textual evidence we have demonstrates a high fidelity in the quality of scribal copying. There are scores of Ancient manuscripts of the New Testament and scholars examining these texts conclude that scribes were generally very careful in transmitting the text. One of the ways scholars can test this is by comparing different ‘families’ of texts from different parts of the Ancient World i.e. texts which can be identified as having a common source or original location. These demonstrate that little scribal embellishment was taken. There are some changes and modifications along the way (as Bart Ehrman outlines in Misquoting Jesus) but these are usually very minor. In the Gospels there are only two pericopes which could possibly qualify as ’embellishments’, the ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-16) and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Neither of these episodes contain anything particularly dramatic nor hold any doctrinal significance.

5. The final form of all of the Gospels were written within 60 years of the death of Jesus. The Gospels were all composed in a very short time period and a time frame very close to the events they purport to record. This allows very little time for embellishment. Furthermore there would have been many eyewitnesses still alive in this period. It is likely they would have been an authoritative voice in the composition and editing of the Gospels.

There is much more that could be said, but it is seems reasonable that the Gospels were not the end result of a long period of scribal additions and embellishments. It seems more likely that they were trying to record what actually happened and they were very careful. There are good reasons to believe that the events contained in the Gospels really did happen.

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