There are a number of questions historians ask when they are trying to assess the historical value of an ancient document that claims to report a historical event. One of the most important is this: Does the document contain irrelevant detail? All other things being equal, the inclusion of incidental details in a document tends to bolster a historian’s confidence in the historicity of the document. It’s evidence that the author was either an eyewitness to the events he records or is at least relying on material that goes back to eyewitnesses.
The Gospels as a whole pass this important test with flying colors. Wolfgang Schadenwaldt, a respected classical philologist and Homeric scholar who has focused upon issues of authenticity in his own field, assesses the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as follows:
“As a philologist, someone who has acquired some knowledge of “literature,” I am particularly concerned here to note that when we read the Synoptic Gospels, we cannot be other than captivated by the experiential vividness with which we are confronted . . . . I know of no other area of history-writing, biography or poetry where I encounter so great a wealth of material in such a small space.” (1)
If we trust the voice of this esteemed classicist, it seems that if ever we ought to be impressed with the incidental details of an ancient work, we should be so impressed with the Gospels.
One particularly interesting class of detail that lends support to the historical veracity of the Gospels concerns the presence of a number of words and expressions that betray an Aramaic origin. (2) For example, when Jesus says that the Pharisees “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mt 23:24), it seems most likely that he was making a play on words in an Aramaic original, for the Aramiac word for “gnat” (galma) and “camel” (gamla) are phonetically similar. These Aramaisms are significant because Aramaic was the common language of Palestinian Jews early in the first century. Hence, the presence of Aramaisms helps anchor the Gospel material about Jesus earlier in the first century and on Palestinian soil, thus providing support for the view that this material goes back to Jesus himself. (3)
Perhaps an even more important class of detail we find in the Gospel is the inclusion of personal names. The Gospel are full of references to personal names. Richard Bauckham has provided an incredibly compelling assessment of this phenomenon, arguing that these names lend strong support to the historical veracity of these reports. (4)
More specifically, for a number of reasons Bauckham argues that the presence of names in the synoptic tradition can best explained by supposing that these characters were specifically remembered because they were eyewitnesses of the traditions to which their names were attached. As such, they would have likely been designated to be the authoritative spokespersons of this tradition and thus would have continued to testify to these traditions throughout their lifetimes.
This would explain why we see more names in earlier sources than in later sources, for as the eyewitnesses died, their specific names were dropped from the tradition. To give one example, we find Mark mentioning by name not only Simon of Cyrene, but also his two sons, Alexander and Rufus (15:21). Both Matthew and Luke, however, retain Simon’s name but, curiously enough, drop the names of his sons (Matt 27:32; Lk 23:26). Bauckham argues that in using these names “Mark is appealing to Simon’s eyewitness testimony, known in the early Christian movement not from his own firsthand account but from that of his sons.”(5) After the sons died, or in communities that were unacquainted with these sons, there would no longer be any purpose for including their names.
The most important class of details found in the Gospels, in my opinion, consists of incidental information one would have expected authors to leave out if they were fabricating material, passing on legends or even just making themselves look good. These are sometimes referred to as “self-damaging” or “self-embarrassing” details, for unless there are other contravening considerations negating them, their presence in a document greatly enhances a historian’s assessment of that document.
Now, we must in fairness concede that one can arguably detect a certain amount of “softening” of potentially embarrassing material in the Gospel traditions. For example, while Mark states that Jesus couldn’t perform many miracles in his home town (Mk 6:5), Matthew simply says he didn’t do many miracles – as though it was his choice, rather than an inherent limitation (Mt 13:38). So too, Matthew, Luke and John seem to soften the potentially embarrassing question of why in Mark’s account Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist (Mk 1:4-11). John’s baptism was explicitly said to be for the repentance of sins, so Jesus’ baptism could be interpreted as an admission that Jesus was a sinner! Not only this, but the very fact that John baptized Jesus, while Jesus is never said to have baptized John, could give the impression that John was superior to Jesus. Given this, we are not surprised to find Matthew, Luke and John describing this account in various ways that soften its potentially embarrassing features (see Mt 3:13-17l Lk 3:19-22; Jn 1:29-34).
What is remarkable is not that softening of this sort took place. What is remarkable, rather, is that Mark recounts the potentially embarrassing episode of Jesus’ baptism in the first place. What is also noteworthy is that, though they arguably soften Mark’s account, Matthew and Luke did not feel free to simply drop it altogether. This strongly suggests that the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ baptism are rooted in history, for there’s no plausible way of explaining how it entered the early Jesus tradition if it is not. And what’s most remarkable of all is that the potentially embarrassing account of Jesus’ baptism by John is hardly an isolated instance in the Gospels. The Gospels are full of embarrassing material we not only can’t imagine early Christians inventing, but about which we might have expected the earliest traditions to drop – were they not so invested in retaining accurate history.
As we should expect, assuming it is the earliest Gospel, Mark tends to present these episodes in their starkest light. Among the potentially embarrassing things we find in this Gospel are the following:
* Jesus’ own family did not believe him and even questioned his sanity (3:21; cf. Jn 7:5);
* Jesus couldn’t perform many miracles in his own town (6:5);
* Jesus was rejected by people in his home town ( 6:3);
* Some thought Jesus was in collusion with, and even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30);
* Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33; 8:23);
* Jesus’ healings weren’t always instantaneous (8:22-25);
* Jesus’ disciples weren’t always able to exorcise demons (9:18) and Jesus’ own exorcisms weren’t always instantaneous (5:8);
* Jesus seemed to suggest he wasn’t “good” (10:18);
* Jesus associated with people of ill-repute and gained a reputation of being a glutton and a drunkard (2:15-16, cf. Mt 11:19);
* Jesus sometimes seems to act rudely toward people (7:27);
* Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (e.g., 2:23-24);
* Jesus often spoke and acted in culturally ‘shameful’ ways (e.g., 3:31-35);
* Jesus cursed a fig tree for not having any figs when he was hungry, despite the fact that it wasn’t the season for figs (11:13-14);
* The disciples, who were to form the foundation of the new community, consistently seem dull, obstinate and cowardly (e.g., 8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50);
* Jesus is betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46) and Peter cowardly denies any association with him (14:66-72);
* Women were the first to discover Jesus’ tomb was empty (while the men were hiding in fear!) (16:1-8).
On top of all this, and most significantly, we must remember that the Gospel of Mark, and each subsequent Gospel, is centered on the fact that Jesus was crucified by Romans. It’s hard to imagine a surer way to convince first-century Jews that someone is not the Messiah than by telling them that the would-be savior was executed by Israel’s military oppressors! To go further and tell them that this would-be savior died a cursed death on a tree would make the “sales pitch” all the worse (i.e., Deut 21:22-23). If ever there was something an early, predominately Jewish, oral tradition would not invent – indeed, if ever there was something we might expect an early, predominately Jewish, oral tradition to conveniently forget – it is this! Yet, we find that not only do the Gospels retain this event: it forms the center of their story!
When we consider these self-damaging features of the Jesus-tradition together, it becomes difficult to deny that this tradition is substantially rooted in history. Related to this, it becomes difficult to deny that Mark — and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Matthew, Luke and John — wrote with a strong historical commitment. The only conceivable motive they could have had for including this sort of material is that they were committed to accurately re-telling the orally transmitted events that formed the self-identity of their respective communities.
Finally, on a related matter, it’s significant to note that the Gospel authors not only include material one might have thought they’d have omitted, but they omit material one might have thought they would have included – were they and the oral traditions they drew from more interested in acquiring a Jesus who was relevant to the on-going needs of the community than they were remembering Jesus as he actually was. From Paul and other early sources (e.g. Acts, the Didache, Clement of Rome), we learn a great deal about the sorts of issues the early church struggled with. But most of these issues are not addressed in the Gospels.
For example, we find in the Gospels nothing about how Gentiles were to be integrated into the originally Jewish Jesus movement. Nor do we find anything about how glossolalia and other “spiritual gifts” were to be used, what food and drink could and couldn’t be consumed, what role women could have in the church, or a multitude of other issues we know the early church had to wrestle with. Had the earliest Jesus traditions been inclined to invent a Jesus relevant to their particular concerns rather than simply remember him as he was, these are precisely the sorts of issues we would have expected the Jesus of the Gospels to address. The fact that the Gospel traditions retain embarrassing material while failing to insert helpful material testifies to their strong historical interest, and thus their general reliability.
(1) W. Schadewaldt, “The Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition,” in M. Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (trans J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 102.
(2) For example, talitha cum (Mk 5:41), ephphatha (Mk 7:34), golgotha (Mk 15:22), bar (Matt 16:17).
(3) See M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 2nd ed (Oxford: Clarendon, rpt, 1954 [1946) and J. Jeremias, The Problem of the Historical Jesus (trans. N. Perrin; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964)
(4) R. Bauckham, “The Eyewitnesses and the Gospel Traditions,” JSHJ 1 (2003) 28-60.
(5) Bauckham, “Eyewitnesses,” 55. Bauckham obviously shares the majority scholarly view that Mark’s Gospel was written before Matthew’s and Luke’s.