Truth and the Sociology of the Gospels

Are the Gospels True Records?

Most people want to know in a broad sense whether the Gospels are true or not. Immediately there is a lot to take on before one would give assent including miraculous healings and the raising from death of four people, three raised by Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection itself. More broadly, there is the scholarship based on manuscripts which puts the writing of the Gospels two or three decades after the events, the so-called synoptic problem which sees the differences between John and the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as a difficulty, and the problems of redaction criticism which tries to find the prior sources out of which the Gospels were formed. These are all real problems and need addressing and answering for Nonchristians and Christians alike.

Of course they need addressing at different levels. Those who do not believe in God will have acute trouble believing in the resurrection, while those who believe that God created the universe and the two billion genetic code in each cell of their body, will not find the odd resurrection a problem. This study does not address these questions, but merely whether and to what extent the events, teaching and person of Jesus are accurately represented in the Gospels – whether they are “true” to what happened or did not happen.

There is one Christian approach which is not helpful. It says, “Of course, the Gospels are true. They are God breathed and God does not lie. More than this they must be inerrant, and so anyone who questions them is not only automatically wrong, but is in some sense culpable.” This kind of dogmatism is not accepted here; it closes the issue down, and we want to discuss it.

This kind of question is dramatically addressed in the Gospel of John in an incident after the Resurrection (if the account is true) recorded in John 20. The text says that Jesus appeared to the disciples Sunday evening after the Resurrection with the doors locked, admittedly a very unlikely event. “He said, “Peace be with you” twice and showed them his hands and side with evidence of the crucifixion wounds he had received on Friday. This poses our issue. Either you believe it or you don’t, or you gawp in suspended belief. Let’s go for suspended belief, even quite negative syspended belief. The account goes on to say, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? That is plausible, if the event happened. But then occurs the account of the event which addresses our issue. Thomas, the twin, was not there on the first occasion, and declared his disbelief. Even though the dozen or so disciples said they had seen Jesus, he disbelieved them. People do not rise from the dead. No evidence. I won’t accept it unless I am convinced. They had told him of the wounds Jesus had shown them, but he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.” Then a week later they were in the same room with the doors again locked through fear and Jesus came, again said, “Peace be with you.” and addressed Thomas inviting him to fulfil his statement so that he could stop doubting and believe. Thomas, not surprisingly, (if you believe the text) did not start poking Jesus and was happy to accept Jesus as “My Lord and my God” seeing that the resurrection had big implications. Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We note that Thomas is not upbraided for not believing. He is allowed his unbelief and verification. Yet others are told they can believe without direct sight of Jesus and be blessed. And, of course, the truth of events, and people, goes way beyond visual verification. So this Gospel incident, if it is an accurate account, allows scepticism as a response, but does not require it. We can well ask how much scepticism is justifiable and still question this account.

The New Testament Studies Eyewitnesses Debate.

Actually, there is a debate going on in New Testament Studies which relates to this. In 2006 Richard Bauckham published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Eerdmans) It raises the issue we are considering fairly straight on. The long tradition of linguistic approaches to the New Testament begin with the manuscripts and focus on the literary construction that seems to take place. This textual work pores over interesting texts and fragments of text which go to make up the Gospels we now have, and clearly it is an important genre of study in this area. But the fragments we have date to the late first century leaving a gap of perhaps seventy years in our information. Bauckham takes a different approach. He looks at the textual evidence and asks, “Where could this information have come from?” So Bauckham looks at the eyewitness theme and the way it plays out. Clearly, this is a game changer. Eyewitnesses one, five, ten or twenty years away from an event are a lot closer than the seventy year plus gap of redaction criticism. Suddenly, scholarship is a lot closer to the events of the Gospel through no other change than the method of approach the scholars are using. The question is, does Bauckham’s approach stand up? Is there the evidence that we have the eyewitness accounts which are the focus of his study? Bauckham’s book is some 500 pages with a range of angles on the issue and swathes of evidence, and it could not be adequately précised here. But the issue is stark. Do we take the manuscript and fragment route, which is mainly linguistic, dwelling on Greek, Aramaic and the other languages of the ancient world, or do we go the route of the eyewitness contributions? Even if we are interested in the latter, there are still some big problems. Eyewitnesses can lie, shape stories, wrongly explain things, forget, be biassed, exaggerate heroes and all kinds of other things. So merely being an eyewitness is not enough. Frequently on television eyewitnesses are questioned with justifiable suspicion by detectives, and the scepticism of a Foyle or Marple seems a virtue. Indeed, we could well seek the detached disbelief of witnesses shown by Foyle and others. So even if we accept eyewitnesses, are the eyewitnesses accurate and true?

Newspapers and the Gospels.

At the same time as Richard was developing the eyewitness theme and publishing it, I was working on a similar question in relation to Jesus and Politics. This is explored in Appendix A “Reporting and Hermeneutics” of Jesus and Politics (Baker Academic, 2005) There are a large number of political events in the Gospels and the question all the time is how you understand them. It brought to the fore an issue of which I have been long aware as a sociologist. Sociologists are made aware of how accounts are constructed – the culture, personal interactions, areas of conflict, power relationships, shared beliefs, body language, conventions, status, dominant narrative themes, seeming incidentals, social distance, social psychology and other things that surround ordinary social interactions. We are actually very complicated.

One of these themes is the temporal distance from events and how they are remembered. So, for example, a few hours ago I learned that poodles need a haircut every six or so weeks and the cut costs about £40 a go. Had I not written that down and told you, it would have gone from my mind, as details often do, and my recall of that conversation would be far more general and filtered than it now is. Distance from events changes the reporting, but events shared stay alive. I, and you, will perhaps never forget that a poodle haircut costs £40, even when it no longer does. So distance from events changes the historical accounts, for a variety of reasons and at a variety of levels.

Crudely put, many of the narratives in the Gospels seemed to me to have more of the character of the reports in yesterday’s Guardian, or the paper of your choice, than of a distant history book, or even a monthly journal. They were full of details of body language, situation, specificity, and location that they seem close to events. Let us look at the example above. Thomas doubts. He has been given the evidence of Jesus hand and side wounds (if the account is true) and his response is “and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side” . This response is specific. Nail wounds are smaller and Roman spear wounds are bigger; he seems to reflect this in his precise words. It has an odd specificity, an echo of authenticity. Now, of course, this does not make them correct. Newspapers get things wrong, as the Guardian’s corrections show. The Grauniad errata can be seen. But newspaper stories, seen as reporting, are often what could be called close history. They contain details that cannot easily be later fabricated, especially by people who were far less media sophisticated than we are. Fabricating pseudo local and immediate historical elaborations, especially in the era when history, novels, reporting and novels were in their infancy, is a big ask for first century, uneducated people. We can legitimately question a whole range of detailed content of the Gospel narratives in terms of their distance from or closeness to events and their authenticity in relation to those events.

Reading Several Newspapers.

There is a second sociological insight we need to heed. Sociologists know that one person’s narrative of events and people is limited. One of the most interesting historical debates surrounds Churchill and History. Churchill insisted on writing his version of the two World Wars and they have become amazingly orthodox and widely accepted. The wily old bird knew what he was about and he emerges as hero. Now a range of historians, notably David Reynolds here at Cambridge, have shown that Churchill’s construction is substantially that. Whereas actually the USSR bore the brunt of the Second World War, losing 25 million dead, while the USA and UK lost half a million each, in Churchill’s account the West won the War and the role of the USSR is partly downplayed. As Churchill hated the USSR that slant is not surprising. But this shows that multiple accounts of events and people are useful. In my slightly simplistic way this is what the Gospels purvey. Whereas the manuscript people have a synoptic problem, I have a synoptic bonus. The multiple accounts (accepting the commonalities in the Synoptic Gospels) give us a more rounded and better account of Jesus’ life and teaching.

In part, the newspaper variations matter. There are some newspapers scarcely worth reading, some biased, some reflecting a particular class, some which are establishment or anti-establishment. But they usually contribute more together than just one paper. They reflect different reporters, different perceptions, different backgrounds and much more. Of course, reading the Gospels is not quite like reading four daily newspapers, but that characteristics of multiple reporting, long discussed anyway by New Testament readers, are an interesting part of the sociology of the Gospels. Doctor Luke has long been noted. The differences of John have always needed explaining. Mark is short and Matthew spends quite a lot of time on taxation. But there is more to it and this, and we will discuss the “Synoptic Bonus” in a range of ways. But do the several accounts add up? There is already a vast literature on this subject, but we might add to it with a bit of sociological background.

Peter Trudgill: spoken and written language.

At school, the CNS in Norwich, Peter Trudgill sat behind me in alphabetical order and Colin Wills sat on the back row at the end of the alphabet with the lockers, unlocked, all alongside us. These and other classroom relationships were important. Colin and I did two hitch-hiking tours down through Europe soaking up the culture and art in which he mainly hunted up the things we should see for which I am ever grateful. Peter was better than me at languages, provided an interesting commentary in my ear when a lesson lagged, I enjoyed his father who worked at Jarrolds in colour publishing, and he became a linguist, an expert on the Norfolk dialect, a dialectologist and sociolinguist who has held six chairs throughout Europe. One of his more simple points is very incisive. It occurs in his book, Dialect Matters: Respecting Vernacular Language (CUP, 2016) and elsewhere. He points out that spoken language has been completely or mainly dominant throughout most of human history and those who give written grammar authority over the spoken word are being linguistic Fascists. I will clear that description with him before this book goes out. Peter in a more restrained way calls it “prescriptivism”. The spoken word is actually more expressive, full of content and ranges of meaning than a grammatical transition of it can convey. The spoken language of ordinary people is not to be demeaned, but is often actually richer. Dialects are OK and deserve respect, and understanding the vernacular is closer to the centre of culture than elites think. This perspective actually changes much of our thinking and understanding of communication whether ordinary or academic.

The point has actually a lot to teach New Testament Studies. The dominant orthodoxy in Biblical Studies and also in many pulpits is that only those who can speak Greek and study the texts in the original can properly understand the Gospels. This is quite tyrannical. The Gospels were not in Greek, but mainly spoken in Aramaic, with some Hebrew and other dialects in the picture. So the Greek text is already conveying a vernacular. This probably does not matter too much because the authors, and oral contributors, were close to their subject, but it does not allow a purist view of the greek text. More than this, the Gospel texts are amazing oral. They are full of conversations, public stories, social engagements and Jesus’ words are far more robust than translation errors. When he says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet and then turn and tear you to pieces” the point is not easily going to be lost in translation. Mainly, we are studying what Jesus said, if that is what he said.

But the deeper point, following Peter Trudgill’s respect for the vernacular, is that we must hear the oral richness of the Gospels going into people’s lives. We must hear it. The vernacular is fully as truthful, potentially, as the university text. Indeed, the latter may have restrictions imposed by its own constructed linguistic framework. But the point is actually bigger than this in the Gospels themselves, because humility before God is more important to truth than anything else. Time and again Christ butchers the self important, those who elevate their own knowledge and understanding. Truths and insights are hidden from the so-called wise and given to babes and the humble. And the point stands. The best educated nation of the 1930s elected Hitler and the best educated nation of this generation elected the self-important idiot, Trump. Wisdom is more complicated than formal education and the written word. Perhaps we have to unread and unthink a lot of New Testament so-called explanatory and theological literature and rediscover the vernacular Christ, if we can have any confidence that he is available to us.

Einstein and his students.
Jesus has every claim to being the world’s greatest teacher studied one way and another by two billion or more students. But actually, as we shall see, he seems to be a very odd teacher. Often he is cryptic, not understood, deliberately obscure, talks to different audiences at one, deliberately teaches ahead of events, evoking “Oh, that’s what he means” and covers vast terrains of subject matter about God, himself, the world, people, politics, salvation, sin and history. It is not easy stuff. I have spent ten years on the one pithy sentence, “Those who take the sword, perish by the sword.” He leaves gaps, is allusive through parables and takes a lot of careful study. I went to Cambridge, have a doctorate and other degrees and am no slouch educationally, but I have studied Jesus teaching for a lifetime and am still going, with questions, new insights, confirmation of what he says and new self-knowledge from his words, and I am one of millions more. He is the teacher; we are the students. There are great teachers and they have students, and we could briefly look at the relation between great teachers and students. Students, usually, know less, are scrambling to keep up with their teacher, have to study round their lectures and grow into the kind of understanding their professor has. This difference is magnified two ways among Jesus disciples. We remember Rabbi equals teacher and disciples equals students; the Gospels are a three year education course, perhaps the world’s best degree programme.

Jesus is teacher, Rabbi. We think of Einstein’s lectures, good, but in a certain sense one greater than Einstein is here. We think of Wittgenstein. You go to his lectures and he teaches you to think, but Jesus teaches you to think in spades. You engage with Socrates, and fortunately through Plato we can, but Jesus is light years ahead of Socrates, great man though he was. In this case the teacher is way out there. He is giving us a God’s eye view turning most of the dominant perspectives upside down.

Meanwhile, without being disparaging, his students are pretty poor – manual workers, illiterate, with unconsidered views of race, power, law and many other things. They have an annoying tendency to take Jesus literally when he is making a wider point. Jesus says, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” and they think he is talking about bread. Even the Pharisees scarcely shine as educated people and there is obvious resentment in the Gospels that this man is so much more intelligent that all the other educated people of Jerusalem and elsewhere.

All this is by way of overturning another convention of Gospel scholarship. Often scholars focus on John’s or Luke’s interpretation of Jesus implying that they are the main formers of the Gospels. But it seems to be it is not like this at all. If we met Einstein’s students, we would ask, what did Einstein say? What were his theories? Insights? What did he say about E=MC²? We would not ask, “What is your interpretation of Einstein”” or “What words did you feel you needed to put in Einstein’s mouth?” How much more with Jesus. The disciples were scrabbling to get it down, to record what they did not understand. They were educated by Jesus into what he taught. This dynamic of the education process in the Gospels is different from the wooden four authorial formulation so common in the textual approach, and it perhaps opens up what is happening in the Gospels far more fully.

Weighing the Truth of the Gospels.

The truth of the Gospels matters a great deal, really to almost all of us. Before their truth are issues like evidence, witness, accuracy, myth, the construction of narratives and all kinds of question about what we read there. This study, like Richard Bauckham’s, questions whether we are not much closer to the Gospels and their narratives than is conveyed especially by the tradition of textual and linguistic research. Of course, it is not finally either/or, but a difference of approach. And it is also true that historical and archeological evidence plays into our understanding. And after all, we cannot be final arbiters, but merely seek to know. But this study seeks to weigh the truth of the Gospels with five tools.
• First, is the sociology which sets out the social scene of many Gospel events. Many have done this before. William Barclay was one great exponent, but there is far more to mine which shows what was going on.
• Second is the eyewitness theme, looking for immediate context which locates and authenticates what is going on, if it so does, for this is no presumption.
• Third, is the significance of the multiple authorship, beyond the four Gospel authors into other contributors.
• Fourth is the oral/written interaction and Peter Trudgill’s contribution underlining the respect and awareness of the vernacular.
• Fifth is the teacher-student dynamic, the pedagogic milieu of the Gospels and how that shapes the formation and content of the Gospels.

With these a range of perceptions might emerge which throw light on the truthfulness, or otherwise, of the Gospels. So let us go and mine the Gospel accounts.

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