Site Section Links
Selecting and Rejecting Gospel Material
"It was impossible in almost all cases to know what
someone said on
One of the challenging questions that is raised and that the believer MUST face concerns how it can be legitimate or be justified to select and reject what to accept and believe and what to discount or discard in the Gospel accounts concerning what Jesus said and did.
First let me quote from Carrier again from an article titled "The Formation of the New Testament Canon (2000)": https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html
"Contrary to common belief, there was never a one-time, truly universal decision as to which books should be included in the Bible. It took over a century of the proliferation of numerous writings before anyone even bothered to start picking and choosing, and then it was largely a cumulative, individual and happenstance event, guided by chance and prejudice more than objective and scholarly research, until priests and academics began pronouncing what was authoritative and holy, and even they were not unanimous. Every church had its favored books, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call "orthodoxy" is simply "the church that won.
"Astonishingly, the story isn't even that simple: for the Catholic church centered in Rome never had any extensive control over the Eastern churches, which were in turn divided even among themselves, with Ethiopian and Coptic and Syrian and Byzantine and Armenian canons all riding side-by-side with each other and with the Western Catholic canon, which itself was never perfectly settled until the 15th century at the earliest, although it was essentially established by the middle of the 4th century. Indeed, the current Catholic Bible is largely accepted as canonical from fatigue: the details are so ancient and convoluted that it is easier to simply accept an ancient and enduring tradition than to bother actually questioning its merit. This is further secured by the fact that the long habit of time has dictated the status of the texts: favored books have been more scrupulously preserved and survive in more copies than unfavored books, such that even if some unfavored books should happen to be earlier and more authoritative, in many cases we are no longer able to reconstruct them with any accuracy. To make matters worse, we know of some very early books that simply did not survive at all (the most astonishing example is Paul's earlier Epistle to the Colossians, cf. Col. 4:16), and have recently discovered the very ancient fragments of others that we never knew existed, because no one had even mentioned them."
With that introduction the following fundamental points must be considered:
1. Eyewitness accounts or non-eyewitness accounts: Whereas the Gospels of John and Thomas are presented as eyewitness accounts, the Synoptic Gospels clearly are compilations of other written material and thus non-eyewitness accounts handed down by people only orally for probably two decades or more after Jesus was gone. These accounts naturally included the emendations that creep in from a chain of retelling. If we can find justification for accepting the Gospels of John and Thomas as eyewitness accounts, then nothing in these should be overridden by anything in the Synoptic Gospels, nor the balance of the New Testament.
"It was impossible in almost all cases to know what someone said on a distant occasion, and therefore it was accepted practice among readers and authors of the time to invent speeches, and it is certain that the speeches preserved in Acts, for example, are entirely of Luke's creation. No one would have expected otherwise. Clearly there were no written editions of the speeches (as they surely would have been preserved with Paul's letters), and oral memory is notoriously bad at recalling anything but the gist and occasion of such things, and even then is easily corrupted by intervening events that alter or distort memory. In the time of L [Luke] and J [Josephus], it was well understood and accepted that speeches would be used as vehicles for the author to convey his own ideas, but also that it was proper to create speeches according to what the author thinks would have been appropriate to the speaker and the occasion (thus giving them at least some justification for inclusion in a supposedly objective history)." Article on Luke and Josephus, Richard Carrier
2. Gospel writer paradigm: Everyone has a paradigm and, outside of challenging that paradigm, they generally can only think, understand, talk, write and behave within it. The Paradigm of the Synoptic Gospel compilers was of course the traditional Judaic paradigm of the transcendent, law-giving, center of power and control God of the Old Testament, whereas the paradigms that John and Thomas imply are radically new and different.
3. Gospel writer agenda:
Everyone has an agenda, and each Gospel writer/compiler had an agenda that
becomes apparent and can be seen fairly plainly. Thus we can see that Matthew was compiled with the
agenda to showcase Jesus "as a greater Moses who introduced both a new
law and covenant and as a Davidic king destined to rule the universe."
Matthew quoted or paraphrased the Old Testament about 130 times.
Generally adhering to Mark's chronology, he arranged Jesus' teachings in
the form of five public sermons probably meant to parallel the five
books of the Mosaic Torah."*
4. Embellishments and fabrications: Some of the Synoptic accounts are obviously embellished or maybe even partially fabricated, such as the various additional women besides Mary that visited the tomb as soon as the Sabbath was over. Also, the whole account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus smacks of having been fabricated for more than one compelling reason.
5. Forced selection and rejection: When the Gospel accounts of the events, deeds and words of Jesus differ and are factually and/or mutually exclusive, one is forced to conclude that one or both are misremembered or embellished, thereby DICTATING a select and reject process, or at the very least a holding of both in abeyance.
6. Misquotations: Given that the very first Gospel was produced some 35 to 40 years after Jesus' time on earth, and given all the other contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts, it would be strange indeed if some statements of Jesus were not incomplete, garbled or misremembered. Sometimes just a word being left out can change the meaning of a communication completely. Even in a story about actual events, it was impossible to know—because there was no written, video or audio recording—what was said at a distance and an earlier time without an eyewitness.
7. Loss of context: In extensive passages in the Synoptic Gospels, the verses are just collections of sentences or phrases, just snippets of conversations with, or statements by, Jesus, and the context is completely lacking. A big and necessary part of any significant or non-simplistic communication is the context, and without that, one is usually helpless to arrive at the intended meaning or specific application. One extreme example is recorded in Matthew 5 and Luke 16 where Jesus is talking about the Jews, their law and their prophets and reiterates what they teach and believe in his conversation with the disciples. This is most of the time in Christian understanding completely turned around and wrong. It is taken to be the teaching of Jesus, when it is actually the teaching of the Pharisees that Jesus is referring to and paraphrasing.
In particular, Matthew has long passages of jumbled non-contiguous pieces of Jesus' conversations where there is no context, and where some of them have been so taken out of context even to the point of implying something opposite to what Jesus would say or teach. In some places we can have no confidence that we are getting a valid account of what Jesus said and meant. For instance, in Matthew 5: 17-20, verses 17 and 18 should be decoupled from the balance, and maybe all of them should be decoupled from each other one. The context of some of these verses was probably Jesus talking about what the Jews currently believe (wrongly), just as it is in Luke 16:17, where Jesus is not talking about what is truth but what is in the collective mind of the current religious teachers.
8. Strained correlation with Old Testament prophecy: Many of the Old Testament quotes that are used as prophetic utterances to affirm Jesus as the expected Messiah in the Synoptic gospels are so general or strained and unwarranted as to be too much of a stretch for a valid correlation in the mind of a critical thinker.
9. Inclusion of invalid material: In that day and in that culture, it was a common teaching practice to use allegories, analogies, and parables. Some of the parables may have been, and probably were, pharisaical parables and were just put into the mouth of Jesus by the storytellers and the Gospel compilers.
10. Irrelevant Material: Accounts with no useful information, such as the appearing of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and its suspect action by Jesus in blessing the bread, can be seen as irrelevant at best. Much of the narrative in the Synoptic Gospels is interesting and maybe of some incidental help but seems to be of limited value in understanding the Gospel and truth about the humanity of God.
11. Single or unilateral source for much of the Synoptic material: The compilers of both Matthew and Luke together include 90% of the previously "published" and cherished book of Mark, which under superficial examination or consideration gives the appearance of corroborating accounts when actually all of this material primarily just came from one compilation source.
12. The crucial and final criterion: ALL of the material and concepts worthy for acceptance and inclusion must be understandable, sensible, compatible and coherent with ALL of the other aspects of the paradigm, and must seem GOOD to and be GOOD for the believer. If this isn't true, we have a fundamental problem that overshadows all others.
* Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, Stephen L. Harris, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985, p. 268
** Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, Stephen L. Harris, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985, p. 298