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"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."
- Richard Carrier

Selecting and Rejecting Gospel Material
05/15/2019

One of the challenging questions that is raised and that the believer MUST face concerns how it can be legitimate to select and reject Gospel verses or passages as valid. How can it be justified  to accept and believe certain material and to discount or discard other material in the Gospel accounts concerning what Jesus said and did?

Formation of NT Canon

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

The more "traditional" mythos, with which both John and Thomas disagreed, is essentially misguided, which means that John and Thomas being in agreement have it right.  The Gospel of John is not a hodgepodge of collected stories, parables and snippets of conversations with little or no context as are the Synoptic Gospels, but is rather a well structured synopsis of strong thematic unity more directed toward the philosophy and message of Jesus than incidental narratives or parables, and there are several clear internal indicators that the Gospel writer John was the eyewitness disciple.  The other auspicious aspect of this is that John and Thomas quite clearly agree on the salient points of Jesus message. They VERY CLEARLY AGREE on the good news!

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 version of God found in 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 fairly readily. 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."[1]

Luke's agenda doesn't seem to go much beyond compiling—in his own words—"an orderly account", which includes his "characteristic preoccupation with human relations and social ethics. His suspicion of the rich, concern for the poor, sympathy for women and other oppressed groups give the L passages a particularly tender ambience."[2]  There are a lot of reasons to think that Luke borrowed heavily from Josephus, and that he got some it confused in his retelling.
    John's Gospel is the only Gospel that deals with the major theological issues in a highly structured way using long passages of Jesus' teachings and his major miracles. John pulls no punches as to the absolute supernatural and dramatic nature of these miracles. He is interested in showing Jesus to be the creator and the Logos, a word that means the fount of rationality, logic and reason in contradistinction to mythos. Mythos is that which must be accepted because it is traditional, or is what the elders or everyone else accepts and is not to be questioned or challenged, whereas logos can be apprehended, challenged and understood by using logic and reason. John's Gospel is the only biblical Gospel that features the Good News about uninterrupted living and not dying, whereas this is only partially mentioned incidentally in the Synoptics, and his Gospel directly implies the simple instructions that we are to follow to inaugurate our Kingship of the heavens. It is also evident that John wrote his Gospel to be significantly corrective without directly challenging specific passages in the others with which he disagreed.

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 (They may have visited later). The quotation in Mark that introduces John the Baptist is actually a composite of texts from Second Isaiah, the Book of Malachi and the Book of Exodus. 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, we are forced to conclude that one or both are misremembered or embellished, thereby DICTATING and/or DEMANDING a select and reject process, or at the very least a holding of both in abeyance.

6. Misquotations: Given that the very first Gospel, Mark, 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 transcript, video or audio recording—what was said at a distance and an earlier time, especially 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 reiterating 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, of which Jesus is referring, paraphrasing, and rejecting.
     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 the proper 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. Who knows at this point?! We can only use our own judgment as to whether Jesus would think this way.
     Another facet is illustrated when Jesus is ostensibly saying, "But when you give alms, you do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you". Jesus has no doubt made a point about sharing instead of giving, and yet that part was lost and this extreme illustration, which may even be sarcasm, was retained. This was not said to be as a code of behavior, but as an elucidation of what happens when you share.
     This should be said: Tenuous interpretations of non-structured or non-contextual passages in the Synoptic Gospels should NEVER be allowed to override common sense. Why would anybody ever DO that?

For a different but equally denigrating perspective on the Synoptic Gospels, See: Synoptics Legalism Bias

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. This does NOT make their point necessarily valid or non-valid.

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 very limited value in understanding the Gospel and truth about the humanity of God and the equality the Creator offers.

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 90% 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.

Although the criteria advanced above may seem radical or extreme, they are nothing but sensible and reasonable! Compare them to the criteria used by many others, including one of the most important and influential founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. See: Jefferson treatment of Bible

[1] Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, Stephen L. Harris, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985, p. 268

[2] Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, Stephen L. Harris, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985, p. 298

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