Video: Are the Gospels Eyewitness Accounts?

The idea that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (or were a step removed) is popular, but where’s the evidence?

Here’s a brief video rebuttal (best when viewed Full Screen).

This kind of project is new for me, so let me know what you think.

I’ve discussed this topic before, and that blog post has references.

The most savage controversies are those about matters
as to which there is no good evidence either way.
Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic. 
— Bertrand Russell

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell


    • Bob Seidensticker


  • Roza

    Loved the visual presentation of a time line.
    When reading text with dates it’s very easy to lose perspective, but this makes it very clear.
    I think it would help to post your references in the video description for people who will eventually find it on YouTube and not through this blog.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Roza: Thanks for the feedback.

      In the YouTube description (underneath), I have a link to the post here that provides all the references. I could just copy the entire post there, but the hyperlinks wouldn’t work (I don’t think).

      • Kevin Miller

        Can you please tell me what software you used to do your graphics? Very effective.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          Go to the YouTube page and click Show More to see the notes.

  • Scott Leopold

    Wow, extremely compelling. Doesn’t leave much wiggle room for theists.

  • Richard S. Russell

    Here’s a little experiment I like to suggest from time to time to demonstrate the validity of oral history. Write down the story of the US presidential campaign of 1972. That was 40 years ago, or about the length of time between the supposed death of Jesus and when people finally got around to writing it up. Who were the candidates, what were the major issues and who was on which side of each one, what were some of their famous sayings, what positions did various interest groups take, what surprising events occurred, how did it all turn out, and so on? Basically, everything you can think of that was related to that campaign, placed in as close to the proper order as you can manage. Feel free to consult friends and family members to get their best recollections as well, but use NO external references, just people’s memories. Take several days to do it if you like. Then, once you’re pretty satisfied that you’ve done about 90% of the best you can, compare it to what REALLY happened, as actually documented, and see how well you did. That should give you a sense of the reliability of oral history.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Richard: Great example, thanks.

    • Overlapping Magisteria

      This is great! …but still not a perfect analogy.

      Even though you are not allowed to consult written sources, those sources still exist and have been keeping peoples memories of the events somewhat in check throughout the last 40 years. You or one of your friends may have read something about the campaign recently, or even a year or more ago. But the ancients did not even have that! You would have to rely on only people who have not read anything about the campaign since it happened nor talked to anyone who had read anything since it happened.

    • smrnda

      You should look up research on flashbulb memories, or the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who studies memory. Eyewitness accounts are not very reliable, but people aren’t always aware that their memories are faulty, or that they’ve confused details. Sometimes other people forget enough details that, if a person recounts a memory, they just assume that the person is correct.

      Either way, studying psychology makes me doubt that oral traditions really preserve that much accurately.

  • gayatri

    Loved the video! My 11 year old daughter and I watched it together. This is an excellent video!

  • srocha

    Who, exactly, makes these claims? It is NOT representative of any scripture scholar I’ve ever come across.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Claims that the authors of the gospels really were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? That they contain eyewitness testimony? I hear it all the time from fundamentalists. What flavor of Christian scholars do you read?

      • srocha

        Catholics, mostly. Other too, who don’t see their confessional faith as relevant to their study of scripture. You may to simply distinguish one set from the other. For instance if I were to use “those atheists” as a blanket label, atheists like Slavoj Zizek (who can’t stand New Atheism) would have a fit. “Count me out!” They’d say. You should do the same, I think, if you care about accuracy and precision in your claims.

        • Blessed Jim

          Bob did say he hears it from fundamentalists. Most Catholics are not fundamentalists. I also have heard this quite often from fundamentalist protestants. It is very prevalent among those who say the Bible is literal and inerrant.
          Also, even among Catholics and liberal Christians, I don’t think I have never heard any believer say something along the lines of ‘well, the Bible claims Jesus said such and such, be we really don’t know if that is correct’. Every christian of any type I have ever met treats the Gospels as effectively error free.
          Are you saying that many Catholic scholars say the Gospel accounts are hearsay rather than factual?

        • Bob Seidensticker


          To add to what Jim the Blessed said, I wonder when these Catholics consider the justification for their beliefs, what do they say? Do they not care and just take the whole thing on faith? Is the question of the accuracy of the Bible simply not addressed?

          You’re right that I might’ve missed an opportunity for clarity. My only claim is that some Christians make these claims about the gospels being eyewitness accounts. Did I say that this belief was universal? Or imply that? If so, that was a mistake.

          It’s probably naïve on my part, but I continue to be surprised that Catholics and others who reject fundamentalist claims say, “Hey–don’t lump me in with those ‘Christians’!” It would be nice to hear an occasional, “I don’t accept that thinking, and I’m glad that someone is slapping some sense into those nutty claims. Thanks, bro!”

        • srocha

          I love it when Dawkins blows the creationist bullshit out of the park; I think he is a brilliant biologist. I applaud when I read Darwin; it’s tip-top. But when Dawkins begin to assume that anyone who has a religious sensibility rejects evolution, and then begins to ridicule and create a pep-rally about, then I want to be 100% sure that I am not implicated in either camp. For me, I don’t really care about being a theist or an atheist. My faith doesn’t turn on that question. I have great admiration and respect for the longstanding intellectual tradition of atheism. I’ve studied it and learned from it and continue to keep up with it. But many of the New Atheist crowd these days have begun to rehearse a rather silly, scientivistic, and narrow version that is as much an insult to atheism as it is to the broad, unqualified theistic tradition that they critique. Just as I cannot dismiss all “atheists” and reserve my grievances for the New Atheists, so too I wish you’d be more careful about who you’re picking your fights with. If you were, then, yes, we could be allies in that respect and perhaps others.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Perhaps we hang out with different atheists, because I haven’t seen (or perhaps noticed) what you describe. My primary complaint is that sometimes the atheist view is presented in a combative fashion.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          he is usually the most interesting commentor.

          Ah, if we could only channel that knowledge and enthusiasm into constructive criticism! The “You’re wrong!” comes through clearly, but the “and here’s specifically the problem” doesn’t so much.

          I’ll add it to my list for Santa.

        • Drewl


          You must be new here. Bob doesn’t do so well with scholarly Biblical criticism. He also doesn’t do so well with scholarly atheism (Zizek, or I’ve begged him to read a number of other atheists to no avail). This isn’t the forum for true intellectual debate with real scholars’ arguments. You’ll be lucky if Bob cites a source for his “Christians say….” posts, but if he does, you can be assured it’s not someone who holds any sway within intellectual Christian thought (with maybe one exception: he did engage Peter Leithart once I believe). His “lumping together” fallacy is quite common, but that’s to be expected of someone working under the authority of the New Atheist Magisterium. Perhaps you will have more luck than I at broadening his perspective.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          I see you’ve met Drew. Drew’s goal seems to be heat, not light. I’ve tried without success to get him to respond to my posts with substantive corrections (“You said X, but Y is the case”–that sort of thing). He’s good at taking offense…but not so good and making clear any errors. I’ve given up hoping that he will become more constructive, but perhaps you will have more luck.

        • Drewl

          Ah yes, says the guy who just refused to read a Wikipedia article.

          Mostly I find myself posting for those with a little more curiosity and openness on these subjects. Go read Wikipedia, come back, tell me why Wikipedia is wrong. Apparently that is asking too much of many people.

          There are people who care to consult relevant scholarly authorities before pontificating on a subject, and there are people who don’t. We have a lot of nasty words for that second group of people. I wish you’d do more to avoid that category.

        • Richard S. Russell

          Drewl (with its unfortunate connotations of uncontrollable spittle) writes: “This isn’t the forum for true intellectual debate with real scholars’ arguments.”
          No, it isn’t. It’s a blog. What on Earth ever led you to believe otherwise?
          If you’re looking for real scholarship from real scholars, there are universities, journals, and books available to you — possibly even archeological vacations if that’s your thing. How is it that you are unaware of this?

        • Phil

          My $.02:

          DrewL seems to be looking for exchanges like those he had with commentator “g” on October 22, 2012 (“Objective Morality Reconsidered”). [A fascinating exchange by the way--clearly 2 people who knew what they were talking about.]

          DrewL seems to be within academia (probably Christian academia, possibly a philosophy professor/PHD/grad student), and clearly has a broad base of knowledge about Christianity and christian apologetics. Given his penchant for citing books/wikipedia articles/outside sources, he seems to be mostly interested in critiquing Bob’s position (often with lots of snark) by referring to these outside sources, and without any explanation for what he actually believes, or what would be better than Bob’s position. (See the end of the September 14, 2012 “Finding Jesus Through Board Games” comments). [Since he quotes outside sources so much, I once accused him of not being able to summarize those sources. Clearly, he can.]

          Also, he seems to be a Christian of some sort (although he has–purposefully–never said so), and he seems to have no love of fundamentalism (or at least no love for popular fundamentalist apologists).

          Finally, despite the snark (which can be extraordinarily off-putting (indeed, insulting)–and hence I understand Bob S.’s reaction above), he is usually the most interesting commentor.

  • http://busterggi@aol.com Bob Jase

    There is also the minor matter that ‘Mark’ never claims to have been Mark or that he actually was an eyewitness – all that was added by later commenters.

  • dorcheat

    Pretty darn swell Bob!

    My goodness, the comments section is sure quiet! Apologists, anyone?

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    Off topic: How did you produce that? What program — did you do the drawing yourself? I need to learn this stuff and I’m not sure how to do it. Any help would be much appreciated.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Click on the YouTube button in the bottom-right of the video to go to the YouTube page. There, in the comments, I summarize the tools I used.

      Yes, I did the (clumsy) drawing myself, by tracing images that I stole from the internet. That 3.5 minutes of video is a sped-up version of 1.5 hours of actual painting time, and of course, the prep (learning how all this stuff works, writing the script, doing a practice run, finding images, etc.) was far more. Next time, it’ll be faster, of course.

      Odin willing, I’ll try to do a video a month or so.

      (As an aside, I’m also thinking of making podcast versions of these posts. Any experts out there who can suggest the easiest route? Hosting services, syndication apps, and all that?)

      • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

        Thanks. I’ll check it out. I’m trying to learn how to do these podcasts, too, but I’ve never done it. Gotta learn. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          If you get something up on YouTube, be sure to tell us about it.

  • Gingerbaker

    What is truly amazing is what the eyewitnesses evidently saw. And that is one reenactment after another of previously ancient stories from the Old Testament and stories from Greek literature.

    If we did not know that these were real eyewitnesses reporting good solid history, we could almost come to the false conclusion that all this material was simply fiction. I, for one, am very grateful that unbiased secular historians like Dr Bart Ehrman tell us very assuredly that the Gospels are clearly derived from multiple and corroborative eyewitness testimonies. Phew!

  • Drewl

    Nice you see you made it over to Wikipedia for this project. Whenever you get around to reading the article on “logical positivism” or the “religion-science conflict thesis,” please let me know.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      More homework–splendid! I was running out.

      • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

        Oh, I can assign you some homework. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Please read this and use your interpretive skills to explain to me what the heck happened.

        Plus, it’s sort of on topic, in the sense that it’s about memory, documentation, eyewitnesses, etc. And it’s not that long. And it’ll give you a break from some of this other stuff.

  • srocha

    I do not deny that we both agree that fundamentalist claims about the Synoptic Gospels are, for the most part, absurd and unfounded. The problem I have is where that premise leads you. You use that argument to dismiss ALL Christians, as though it perfectly followed from it. Or, at the very least, you seem to think that by knocking down this argument your own stance as a certain brand of atheist is the fallback position. Now, you may deny that, but your lack of qualification implicitly says it nonetheless. If you were to say something like, “regardless of my stance as an atheist, I want to show you the absurdity of a certain approach to the Synoptic Gospels in some prominent circles of Christianity.” This I could get behind because it is not a backdoor way to your own position (or my own) and it clearly states who the argument is directed at. Shore up your argument and you’ll find me doing nothing other than atta boys up the wazzoo.

    PS: making your argument in the way I recommend is the most scientifically sound way of doing it. You can’t have your Science cake and eat it too.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      You use that argument to dismiss ALL Christians, as though it perfectly followed from it.

      My intention is to criticize a specific argument and to say that all Christians who use it are shooting blanks. As you note, any Christian who rejects this argument is on the same page as me (on this issue, anyway).

      Are you saying that this is unclear?

      PS: making your argument in the way I recommend is the most scientifically sound way of doing it. You can’t have your Science cake and eat it too.

      Your way sounds fine. How am I missing it? Do I make unfounded sweeping claims?

      • srocha

        If your intention is to criticize a specific argument, then, just say what that argument is specifically, which requires more than just giving the basics of the argument, but also the source. Once the source is specified (e.g. so and so and, generally, most protestant christians evangelical fundamentalists), then I’ll be just fine. And would appreciate your efforts in the same ways I appreciate Dawkin’s brilliant work in biology. Make sense?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Not completely. I’m still not sure where one could be offended.

          The second sentence begins, “We’re told …” To carefully qualify the “We” would (1) be boring when I’m trying to pare away every single word to make the script move along briskly and (2) open me up to yet more criticism by people quibbling over what church or sect believes this, what fraction in that group believes it, whether it’s official dogma or just poll results, and so on.

          I could be legalistic and say something like, “William Lane Craig, in a December 1, 2012 article titled ‘Eyewitness Accounts,’ says …” Again–boring.

          Is it really that hard to see whether you’re in my crosshairs or not? Is the issue confusion over who I’m attacking, or is it the fear that I’m making a sweeping attack on all Christians?

        • srocha

          Both really. It is both unclear and seems quite easily read (both atheists and theists) as a general overarching claim, not a very specific one. But look: boring is not a sound argument. Science is boring. But it’s also devastatingly true. Have you read Dawkin’s boring stuff? It’s dense and fascinating. If you want to uphold reason as a standard for things, then you cannot take short cuts to avoid being boring. Legalistic accuracy may be boring but it is also constructive in all the ways that well shore up arguments and data and science is. Otherwise you become liable for the same easy, light-in-the-rational-pants attitude of these know-nothing christian fundamentalists. Can’t be both. Rigor and boredom may go hand in hand, but if you’re going to be a rationalistic atheist, you cannot complain about the fact that the telling the truth is tedious sometimes. You have lots of details, without the source of them. C’mon man, you know better than that! Be a self-respecting rationalist! See?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Are you saying that, after multiple viewings of the video, you’re convinced that I’m accusing every single Christian of accepting this particular flawed argument? If not, I’m not sure what the problem is. Yes, I could append, “If this argument isn’t one that you use, then I’m not talking about you,” but why waste everyone’s time with such a legalistic tautology?

          I’m simply wondering how far backwards I have to bend to make sure that every sensitive listener is quite clear who I’m addressing and who I’m not. I thought it was pretty clear–if the post stings because it’s close to home, then I guess I’m talking about you. If instead you think, “Missed me! That’s not at all what I believe!” then gimme a hug.

          I love being precise and making clear where I got my evidence, but that’s what text-only blog posts are for. I put a reference to the previous blog post in Wednesday’s post, just after the video. You saw that, right?

    • Kodie

      “We’re not all like that!” The protest of many moderate or progressive Christians.

      YES WE KNOW. Why is the most important thing to defend your hurt feelings and never really say that you address the wrong people as much as we do. I have very rarely heard a moderate Christian say “I agree with your points here, and I will take your side in a discussion about it.” Like most of the time, atheists are just wrong about everything and insensitive and intolerant, so you have to stand up for yourself, pick a little different argument, it’s just this side-tracking thing where you make it about you instead of about them and why they’re wrong; subtracting from the topic rather than adding your insight from your unique point of view. Assure us instead that you have no part in the blame for any of that.

  • Phil

    Loved the video. Well done. Also, all new information to me; I’ve watched it several times.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      :) :)

  • Greg G.

    Great video. It confirms what I already knew which gives me confidence in my understanding and that the new information is reliable.

  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    Good info. on the the external evidence. Have you ever considered the internal evidence? There’s many stories in the gospels where the only possible witness is the reader. For example, who witnessed Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert? Or Jesus’ praying in the garden while the apostles slept? Or Jesus’ conversation with Pilate? Or Judas taking the bribe?
    These are clearly dramatic fictions that no one witnessed. They’re written like a movie where the audience becomes the witness.


    • Bob Seidensticker

      You’re saying that these are just devices by the writer? That it didn’t actually happen?

      Have faith, man!

  • J. Bob

    While many contemporary people look down on people’s long term memories, in earlier times, peoples’ lives depended on that gift. You might say the today’s long term memory is like long term investors, 24 hrs.

    I can recall stories of my grandfather, who was born in 1852, told about living on Poland, why they came to America, & family members. Doing the genealogical history, he was right.

    Since the Muratorian Canon fragment is dated to about 120 years after Christ, & contains the 4 gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s writings & most of the epistles, it seems unlikely people would put their lives on the line, for some questionable stories.

    To have a fragment of John’s gospel (P52, Jn 18:31-33 dated 120 AD) show up in Egypt would indicate the scriptures were in circulation by the mid-late 1st century. By the mid-late 2nd century, there exist extensive portions of Luke & John ( P66 & P75).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      While many contemporary people look down on people’s long term memories, in earlier times, peoples’ lives depended on that gift.

      There’s a big difference between confidence in a memory and that memory’s accuracy. I see no reason to think of the memories of ordinary people long ago as being dramatically more reliable than ours. Not everyone was a Homer.

      Since the Muratorian Canon fragment is dated to about 120 years after Christ

      That’s a long time to span by memory. And that doesn’t even account for the eyewitness account. So we call the first gospel “Matthew”–how reliable is this book? Is this supposed to be eyewitness testimony? It doesn’t claim to be. It used Mark, which an eyewitness wouldn’t. Etc.

      it seems unlikely people would put their lives on the line, for some questionable stories.

      I don’t see how this is relevant. We can agree that the 9/11 hijackers believed their stories and didn’t think them “questionable.” That doesn’t mean that those stories were accurate.

      To have a fragment of John’s gospel (P52, Jn 18:31-33 dated 120 AD) show up in Egypt would indicate the scriptures were in circulation by the mid-late 1st century.

      Scholars put the date of John at about 90. And again, this is irrelevant to the question: who wrote this gospel, and why should this account be trusted?

    • Richard S. Russell

      J. Bob, let’s say that you’re an all-powerful, all-knowing deity, and you have it as your fondest heart’s desire that all people on Earth should come to know and love you. Is this slip-shod, half-assed, “folk wisdom”, game-of-telephone approach truly the best you could come up with to get your story out, knowing full well that you’ll be missing a huge chunk of the world’s population and reinforcing the justly held skepticism of a good portion of the rest?

  • Karen

    Watched a video today of Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Richard Carrier on whether Jesus was resurrected by God. Dr. Craig simply based all of his evidence on the bible saying “If the bible says its so then that settles it.” Wish I had seen this before wasting almost two hours listening Craig babble on.

    Great job here! Keep at it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad it was helpful.

  • J. Bob

    Noting you last comment 1st, that scholars put John’s gospel about 90 AD. You should say some, as there are two primary streams of thoughts, broadly noted as early & late composition. There are some, including Dead Sea scholars Carmignac & Gordon who hold for early composition, and others such as Ehrman, Crossan, et. al., favor late.

    The ability of humans to have accurate memories, was noted at a Navigation seminar, many years ago. The presentation was, how the South Sea islanders navigated across vast stretches of the Pacific, and reach mere specks of islands. The people had only the stars, sun, moon, conditions of the sea, & birds to guide them. A similar scene could be used in the deserts of the mid east, for water holes & grazing areas.

    Those who did not have accurate memories died, those who did, passed on their genes to future generations.

    • smrnda

      I don’t think that all types of memory are equal; navigating is mostly a spatial task. I’m going to look up the source if I can find it, but certain types of memory, such as narrative memory, are much less reliable. Perhaps a reason is that getting a story right or wrong may have less survival value than navigating or remembering which mushrooms you can eat and which ones are poisonous.

      • Kodie

        Off the top of my head, I can think that there would be survival value in being the most interesting or persuasive. In the moment you are conveying information, you know if it’s important to get it exact, or flourishing it wouldn’t cause any harm. If you are telling someone how to get to an island or a village from far away, or a gas station or anything like that, you’re not likely to turn it into a story about the time you were 7 and you learned how to castrate a bull or what color scarf your mom was knitting, and how the air felt as you waited for her to finish it. Narratives have distracting details. However, many times I’ve been to my grandma’s house down in the city from where I grew up, and I still don’t know how to drive there. I was awake, I looked out the window, and the one time I drove down there in my own car, I got quite lost. I could tell you almost everything I saw as a familiar narrative and what’s not there anymore, but I don’t know which sign marks the turn-off and when to merge, important stuff like that. I think the GPS tells it like it is without telling you to turn left at the house with the tree I had my first kiss under, and other stuff that wouldn’t be helpful to you.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          A bit off topic, but speaking of selection: remember the Banda Ache tsunami in 2004? Those people who had a miraculous survival story lived to tell about it, and those who didn’t, didn’t.

          So when someone now says, “God clearly smiled on me because he saved me in an amazing way while others around me died,” those who could rebut with, “Oh? What god?! He certainly didn’t give a damn when I was floating around out there,” are all dead.

          A natural disaster always (randomly) selects in favor of people with a dramatic survival story.

        • Kodie

          I was envisioning being able to talk someone out of killing you, either in anger or justice, how to cheat someone out of their share of food or whatever, how to persuade someone to mate with you instead of someone else. Same reasons we lie or embellish the truth now. A lot of professions use a compelling story-telling skill – teachers to make education more vivid and memorable, and less dry or detached; salespersons want you to buy this car not the other dealer’s car. They are not merely a list of features or a demonstration of lessons, they draw in the listener, not to memorize the story, but to get the gist of it to stick. If they are passing that gist on, they are unlikely to remember the vivid embellishments, but will add their own. If you went into an electronics store and fell for a new TV, listen to the salesperson’s pitch, but you have a spouse to get on board before you give ‘em your credit card. You can remember the features, but not the pitch and make your own pitch. He/she remains unconvinced – so you add things like, and I’ll do extra cleaning, or, this will make me more efficient or some b.s. like that. That’s not going to save your life, but it’s going to feed the salesperson. Without their help, you might not be able to justify the purchase or understand the advanced features that cause the price to be higher than a similar TV. You might not still understand it but he made it sound really worth it and you’d be stupid to invest in the less-feature-laden TV now with all the new technology they’re coming out with.

      • Bob Seidensticker


        Perhaps a reason is that getting a story right or wrong may have less survival value than navigating or remembering which mushrooms you can eat and which ones are poisonous.

        And another reason: why imagine that the story teller wanted each retelling to be like a tape recorder? Different audiences might need different stories. (I get this from studies of contemporary oral story tellers.)

        • Phil

          Moreover (as has been pointed out), the incentive of the earliest storytellers were to MAKE A CONVERT! Not accurately report what happened.

          Given this conversion mindset, why NOT change the story to make it better? Since the stories were part of a fundamental “truth’ that the teller already believes, any sort of embelishment (even if only slight) only serves to make the story “truer” (at least from the teller’s point of view).

        • Phil

          Moreover (as has been pointed out), the incentive of the earliest storytellers was to MAKE A CONVERT! Not accurately report what happened.

          Given this conversion mindset, why NOT change the story to make it better? Since the stories were part of a fundamental “truth’ that the teller already believes, any sort of embelishment (even if only slight) only serves to make the story “truer” (at least from the teller’s point of view).

        • Kodie

          I wasn’t convinced the first time you said it, but the second time, I definitely will reconsider your argument. ;)

        • Phil

          Did you see, though, I changed it a little the second time? More powerful now [ok, more grammatical].

          But, no doubt, the more powerful version will help win converts!

    • Richard S. Russell

      J. Bob, you raise a good point about the power of evolution to select for desired behavior. But evolution also selects for things like the peacock’s tail that make you look hot to the opposite sex. And it’s by no means clear which category “good story-telling ability” falls into.
      Remember that the same people who “remembered” all those tall tales about Jesus also “remembered” that bats were birds and eating pork could kill you. (It’s true, of course, that eating pork CAN kill you, but that’s not the proper lesson to be learned from the experience. It’s eating UNCOOKED pork that can kill you, but if you jump to the wrong conclusion too quickly, you never figure that out. Thus the origins of superstitious behavior — and many a superstitious belief as well.)

      • Bob Seidensticker


        My favorite thing that they “remembered” was that what the mother sees can affect the appearance of the offspring (Jacob and the sheep, Genesis 30:37–9).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      J Bob:

      … scholars put John’s gospel about 90 AD. You should say some, as there are two primary streams of thoughts

      Yes, there are different opinions within the scholarly community, but since this was off topic, I didn’t want to get into it deeply.

      The ability of humans to have accurate memories, was noted at a Navigation seminar, many years ago.

      ?? Seems odd to talk about the memories of South Sea peoples, when the topic is the Ancient Near East.

      Anyway, if memories of the stories of Jesus passed in a special way, it’s your job to show us. To simply note examples of people who have well-trained memories is irrelevant. Show us that the Jesus story couldn’t have been passed along in any way but in a very precise, very low-error fashion.

      Failing that, we must assume that it was passed along as other information would be.

    • Richard S. Russell

      After spending a bit more time thinking about this, it occurs to me that passing along ACCURATE information undoubtedly enhances SURVIVAL selection, but passing along INTRIGUING information may well enhance SEXUAL selection. That is, there’s a tension here between what’s more effective over the long haul.
      Also, with respect to stories (as opposed to, say, clothing choices), there’s an intellectual component involved. I don’t know about you guys, but I get dozens of e-mails every month with cute stories, and I dutifully pass them on to my own friends and mailing lists — at least the ones who I think will appreciate them. But I always go thru them first and clean up any spelling or grammatical mistakes, and I occasionally spruce up a poorly articulated turn of phrase. Obviously, not everybody does this. (I confess to being a kind of language nerd.) But it doesn’t TAKE a lot — say, 1 person out of 20 — to gradually transform a tale over time, even if the other 19 just pass it on intact. And that’s with e-mail, where we can be practically assured of 100% perfect copies every time. No such assurance existed prior to about 30 years ago.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Your example is analogous to the progress of a joke, where no one is bound by the specifics of the joke but rather by making a powerful point (punch line, in this case).

        If you hear a joke about a rabbi and a horse going into a bar but you realize that making it a rabbi and a goat would improve it, what’s stopping you? Certainly not fidelity to the original joke. Your concern is fidelity to the point, not the specifics.

      • Kodie

        This may not be relevant, but George Carlin rather famously denied at least half of what’s been attributed to him in a variety of email forwards and website lists of quotes and one-liners. I don’t know how effective he was, but for someone whose material was published inside of the time of 40 years or so, getting mixed up with anonymous humor was bound to happen. I am just thinking if “this sounds a lot like Jesus would say, let’s tack it on to the story we heard before we tell it again.”

        • Bob Seidensticker

          It’s hard to imagine at a time when we’re so familiar with urban legends that we’d look back at people 2000 years ago and pretend that they were fundamentally different and had some elevated demand for accuracy.

      • Kodie

        I also might say as I said above, pretty much what you already said. People are not machines with only one use of speech or thought, and can change tactics based on the situation. I know the difference between getting you to come to a party with me when you don’t really want to go, and making sure you know exactly how to get there; I know how to relay two different types of information for two different situations.

        If I am telling you how to kill an animal to eat before it eats you, I’m going to prioritize the information you need to get it done so I can eat too, and you can continue to be of use to our tribe. There are things like fear involved in things like a long voyage or killing food, so I might embellish how brave you are, and how it will be good for all of us and we’re depending on you yadda yadda, but mostly that’s going in a different file. I think ceremonial aspects of adulthood give a lot to one’s confidence that certain new things are expected of them, while I also know the hazards of laxing on the pertinent how-to. It does none of us any good if you screw up, so it’s going to be pretty strictly instructional vs. the story you tell about it when you arrive. Stories like that also tend to have an effect of nationalism or tribal pride, for example. We won the day; it was difficult but our hero pulled us through. He lost his leg to a shark and just tied it off and kept rowing, and even though he knew he would likely die from his injuries, he didn’t let that stop him from getting the rest of us over here.

  • J. Bob

    I will disagree with you comment that dating John’s gospel earlier then 90 AD, & say it is relevant to the topic. The Muratorian fragment notes John was the fourth gospel. So assuming John’s was the last, the rest were roughly completed prior to John’s. John mentioned the the Bethseda pool with the 5 porticos standing, & no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction (70 AD). This would point to pre 70 AD composition. Hence earlier gospel compositions could date to within 30-40 years of Christ, well within accurate memory recall.

    From comments of British officers from WWII, who fought in N Africa, it was noted that navigating in the desert is like navigating at sea, using your memory, few landmarks, stars, sun & moon, to get to the next water hole. To the nomads of the desert, this was routine, no special training, it was the way they were brought up. And it didn’t take long to know who were the better guides.

    As far as special ways of communication of stories, one of the oldest & best know is cadence (rhythm) in a ballad or epic story. If the cadence is off, an error has occurred. We used a variation of this in the early communication systems to initially detect & later correct transmission errors. Unfortunately in the translations of the Bible, much of that is lost. Which is why many scholars feel that Hebrew may have been the original language, or most of, the original gospels.

    However it would not have been uncommon for people to make notes of what a teacher, or famous person would say or do. Read the supper at Agathon’s house, in Athens , when Socrates drains a 2 qt. wine jar.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I will disagree with you comment that dating John’s gospel earlier then 90 AD, & say it is relevant to the topic.

      Topic 1: dating of the gospels. Topic 2: the strength of the evidence that claims that the gospels were eyewitnesses.

      We’re not talking about Topic 1 with this post. If you want to comment on that, that’s fine, but that’s a tangent from what the topic is here.

  • J. Bob

    my point is, getting the written word gets to the spoken word is a prerequisite for getting the story right.

  • J. Bob

    hit the wrong key. Should read, getting the written word closer to the spoken word is a prerequisite for getting the story right.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      OK, but like links in a chain, they’re all required to get a compelling story. You get the dates of the autographs closer to the events, and then you increase the period of oral history before Papias (or someone else) writes it down. Etc.

  • J. Bob

    Interesting recent book on the current thread. Richard Bauckham’s book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans).


    • Bob Seidensticker

      On another comment thread, Karl has been bugging me to read this book, basically saying that I’m not well informed without doing so. I agree that it’d be great to have infinite time to read all these books, but that just ain’t the case.

      Anyway, I’ve read a couple of reviews, and I doubt that there’s much in Bauckham’s book that I haven’t already thought of or read.

      But I do appreciate the suggestion!

  • Andrew Ryan

    I could be confused, but I think it’s just Stephen King writing under a pseudonym.