RELIABILITY OF THE GOSPELS

Chapters 6-8  from “Jesus for Ever. Fact and Faith” by John Wijngaards, Catholic Truth Society, London 1987.

 

Chapter    6
Can we trust the gospels?

In the gospels Jesus is reported to have said that any disciple who treasures his teachings and shapes his life according to them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. ‘The rain poured down, floods overwhelmed it and the gale beat against it. But it will not fall because it had been built on rock’ (Mt 7:25). Since Jesus is my teacher whose resurrection gives a totally new meaning to my life, his teachings are a precious gift that I value highly. But can I be sure that what I find in the gospel texts are the genuine teachings of my Master?

Since the Enlightenment many doubts have been thrown on the reliability of the gospel traditions. The critics who express such doubts will commonly admit that Jesus was a preacher who lived and died in Palestine, but they maintain that few of his original words have come down to us intact. We have some fragments of Jesus’ teaching, they will contend, fragments which have been enlarged and re-interpreted by his disciples. Moreover, to corroborate the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ salvific death and divinity, many so-called sayings of Jesus were ‘created’ by the early Christian community and attributed to Jesus himself. If we were to believe these critics, it is not the original Jesus who is speaking to us in the gospels, but rather the divinized product of collective imagination.

What should we make of these allegations? Can we disprove them? Can we show that the teachings presented in the gospels do go back to Jesus himself?

I believe we can. We will first study the attitude of the evangelists, the writers of the gospels. Then we will look at the trustworthiness of the written documents and oral traditions which they used as sources. Finally, we will consider the importance of eyewitness accounts.

The message of a foreword

Before we judge the work of the evangelists by scrutinizing what they actually do, it is only fair to listen to what they say about their intentions. Luke for one tells us in so many words that he has studied the facts and wants to present an accurate report. Telling us the truth about Jesus is his declared purpose.

Many writers have undertaken before now
to compose accounts of the events
which took place among us,
in harmony with the tradition
which the original eyewitnesses
and ministers of the gospel
have handed down to us.
Therefore, most excellent Theophilus,
I too decided
to write an orderly account of it for you,
after investigating everything carefully from the beginning.
It is my aim that you should recognise
the reliability of the oral instruction you received.
Lk 1:1-4

 

This seems very plain speaking. Luke says that he has studied his material carefully, checking out its truthfulness with eyewitnesses and the original preachers of the gospel. He assures his reader that he wants to present fact not fiction. Unless he is deliberately trying to deceive, he claims that his gospel is just the opposite of what the critics make it out to be: it is a reliable report, not a compilation of later inventions. The critics, for example, say that Jesus'(38) announcements of his own death and resurrection as salvific events were never spoken by the original Jesus; they were created by the later community.(39) Luke, however, asserts that Jesus made these announcements at least seven times in his gospel.(40) Either the critics are wrong, or Luke is presenting his gospel under false pretences.

But the solution may be much simpler, you might argue. Perhaps Luke wasclaiming to give a factual report but he did not mean a factual report as we would understand it. At that time the science of history had not yet been invented. People had no idea of what accuracy in reporting means. Belonging to the pre-scientific age, they would so easily mix legends and anecdotes with proved facts. Making up stories, you might say, is just part of the way they wrote history in those times!

It is true that the evangelists were theologians as well as historians. They expressed certain truths in literary forms we would not use today, as I will explain in chapter 8. It’s also true that they were not as concerned as we are today with descriptive detail or accidental circumstances. In that sense their way of reporting was different from ours today.

But to say that they had no idea of history writing, of factual reporting, of accuracy in conveying the substance of historical events, would be a serious mistake. Both Jews and Hellenists knew what scientific research involves. They realised that an ideal historian should be faithful to his sources, critical in judgement and unprejudiced in his presentation. They were interested in the accuracy and historical reliability of the reports they read. Even if some historians at the time fell below standard—as many do today—the value of establishing historical certainties was clearly in their minds.

The matter is so important that we should discuss it at some length. Ancient writers often testify to the need to narrate the facts as they happened. Herodotus (450 bc), Thucydides (460-400 bc), Polybius (200-118 bc), Dionysius (60-30 bc), Lucian of Samosata (ad 125-180), Cicero (106-43 bc) and Flavius Josephus (ad 37-100) discussed and set out the standards by which historical reports should be judged. Dionysius, for example, condemns histories ‘written in an offhand or negligent manner’, and Cicero may be quoted as representing common conviction when he said:

Who does not know history’s first law to be that ar author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? And its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there must be no suggestion of partiality in his writings? Nor of malice?(41)

Thucydides declares that historians should depend or eyewitness accounts and original documents. He defines his method as follows:

With reference to the narration of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-­witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.(42)

Other historians, Herodotus, Polybius, Lucian, Sallust (86-35 bc), Tacitus and Josephus, profess the same ideal and at times mention such primary sources as were available to them.

The quotation from Thucydides illustrates also that ancient historians recognised the difference between mere tradition and accurate history writing. The importance of carefully sifting the source material is stressed by Herodotus, Polybius and Josephus. Lucian lays down this rule:

As to the facts themselves, the historian should not assemble them at random, but only after much laborious and painstaking investigation. He should for preference be an eyewitness, but, if not, listen to those who tell the more impartial story, those whom one would suppose least likely to subtract from the facts or add to them out of favour or malice.(43)

A special study has shown that modern scholars judge several of the ancient historians to be trustworthy and accurate in the writings which they left us. They give full marks to Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus; Josephus, Caesar, Polybius and Livy pass with more than average. The study concludes: ‘The fact that in the first centuries many historians wrote carelessly does not imply that the early Christian writers must have had no idea what accurate writing involved’.(45)

The question of historicity did mean something for the contemporaries of the apostles. When Luke in his prologue stresses that he made careful investigations and that he aims at proving the reliability of the stories and teaching that up to then had not been written down, his claims were meaningful to his readers. They expected historical truthworthiness, and nothing less would satisfy them.

Of course, Luke did not intend to write history as such. His purpose was to report accurately the instruction given by the Master. Careful comparison with other prologues to Greek writings at the time shows that Luke’s foreward is most like those written to preface manuals instruction.(46) Such manuals were functional and matter of fact. They derived directly from a teaching context: they are the written deposit of the techne or skill, the distillation of the teaching of a school or a craft tradition as it was passed down from one generation to another. Physicians, metal workers, weavers and other craftsmen used such manuals to learn and pass on the knowledge of their skill. We know now that many of the early Christians belonged to the middle classes: small business men, skilled labourers, people owning their own workshop. ‘The typical Christian was a free artisan or small trader.'(47) Luke the physician and Paul the tentmaker could speak to them in their own language. Luke consciously presented his report of Jesus’ teaching in the form of an instructional manual which was supposed to be sober in style, to the point and reliable its teaching.

No teacher like Jesus

Whereas Luke wrote for Hellenists, Matthew composed his Gospel for Jews. Nevertheless, the same intention of accuracy and truthfulness is clear from his presentation.

Matthew presents Jesus mainly as a teacher, a rabbi. He arranges his Gospel around five sermons of Jesus (chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18 and 24-25). In these sermons he has put together various teachings of Jesus in a systematic form. As Moses proclaimed the Ten Commandments and the other laws from Mount Sinai, so did Jesus, according to Matthew, proclaim his Beatitudes and liberating teachings as the start of God’s new kingdom.

Matthew also records sayings of Jesus himself that show that there has been no other teacher as important Jesus was.

Do not allow yourselves to be called rabbi, for you have only one teacher, and you are all brethren . . . Neither allow yourselves to be called masters, for you have but one master, the Christ. Mt 23:8-10

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Mt 24:35

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice will be like a fool who built house on sand. Mt 7:26

Whoever denies me before other people, I will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Mt 10:33

To me has been given all authority in heaven and earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them observe all that I have told you. Mt 28:18-20

What could be worse than for a disciple to adulterate the teachings of his Master? In the Old Testament Moses warned repeatedly: ‘You may not add to the word which I command you, nor detract from it’ (Dt 4:2); ‘Be careful to put into practice everything I command you. Do not add to it or detract from it’ (Dt 13:1). The author of the book of Revelations pronounced a curse on anyone who would dare to add to his words or take away from them (Rev 22:18-19).(43)

Since for Matthew Jesus is the greatest teacher of all, how would he ever dare to invent new teaching and ascribe it to his Master or give a new slant to his Master’s words to make them fit his own understanding? How could he ever presume to know things better than his Master had? We can be sure that Matthew was convinced that the teaching contained in his Gospel was a faithful rendering of what the actual historical Jesus had taught.

Accepting the evangelists’ good intention, however, is not enough. Do we have some independent means to check out the reliability of their accounts? Can we find corroborating evidence to support their claims?

 

Chapter 7
What did Jesus really say?

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were manuals of instruction. It is important for us to recognise this. If a biographer today wants to write a life of, say, Churchill, he will study the sources, but the final presentation will be his own. The evangelist did not have this freedom. The bulk of his writing had already been done in the ‘tradition that lay before him: stories, parables, sayings of Jesus disputes with the scribes. The evangelist could change the order, explain certain words or events, add his commentary, present the material in a logical form; he could not deviate from the given traditions themselves.

To understand what this means, let us look at one such tradition as we find it in each of the three gospels (please note that we print here very exact translations the original Greek so that variations in wording can be compared).

Matthew:
When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who will speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Mt 10:19-20

Mark:
When they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour. For it is not you who will speak but the Holy Spirit. Mk 13:11

Luke:
When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you have to say. Lk 12:11-12

Reading the three versions of this tradition we cannot fail to see that, in spite of small variations, they go back to one original text. The same tradition, incidentally, is found in a slightly alternative rendering in Lk 21:14-15 and Jn 14:26. Since such a tradition forms a unit, we speak of it as a ‘passage’ or ‘pericope’. We can study such a passage on its own merits, try to determine its origin, see if it can be traced back to Jesus.

How much of the gospels is made up of such traditional material? The answer is: Practically all of it. Take, for instance, Matthew’s gospel. Its total of 18,518 words in the original Greek text comprises 196 passages. Of these passages 100 are parallel to both Mark and Luke (7,678 words). Matthew has 49 passages in common with Luke alone (4,923 words). 47 passages are found only in Matthew (5,917 words), but even these passages can be shown to have an earlier origin. In other words, all Matthew did was to present traditions that already existed, arranging them in a particular way and adding his explanations here and there.

You might think that the evangelists simply copied from each other. The outcome of more than a hundred years of painstaking research seems to rule this out. Rather, scholars have deduced from the common passages the existence of written sources that pre-date the gospels. These were collections of ‘traditions’ from which the evangelists drew when they composed their gospels. The two main written documents which it is thought must have existed are referred to as ‘UrMark’, known to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and ‘Quelle’, drawn upon by Matthew and Luke.

However, what is even more interesting is that it has also been shown that the traditions, before they were written down in these documents, had been handed down in oral tradition. Such oral tradition should not be confused with the rumours, popular small talk or family traditions found in our own society. We are talking here about precise texts that were formulated by a teacher and memorised by the disciples. We will explain this better further on, but in general we may say that oral instruction learned by heart would present precisely those features that are so prominent in the gospel traditions: repetition of very exact phrases with a certain amount of free formulation. If you look at the samenesses and differences of the three versions of the tradition printed above, you will see that the key idea remains the same: Do not be anxious—the Spirit will help you say the right thing. Slight variations between them, however, occur, such as ‘the Spirit of your Father’/’the Holy Spirit’, exactly as one would expect in texts that have been learnt by heart.

Tracing the gospel traditions

It will not be easy for me to condense in a short space the enormous volume of research that has been done in tracing the traditions to their source. The evangelists claim that Jesus was their author, the Master from whom they derive their authority.

Perhaps it is necessary at this stage to remind ourselves of how Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, used to teach. At the end of each instruction Jesus used to formulate a summary of it in a brief poetic form. ‘The conclusion of a doctrinal instruction was a phrase which the disciples received and which they repeated until it was indelibly imprinted in their memory’.(48) ‘The final result of what might have been a lengthy doctrinal instruction was formulated in a thesis that contained the worthwhile conclusion. This thesis was memorised and handed on, not the whole instruction.'(49) A good disciple was someone who ‘understands easily and forgets with difficulty’; ‘a plastered cistern which loses not a drop.'(50)

To help memorization Jesus formulated his teaching in a distinctive way, in the style of prophetic oracles. His sayings would follow the rhythmic qualities of poetry. We find in them Hebrew parallelism, the repetition of refrains, ring-construction, alliteration and the rise and fall of accents. Jesus’ sayings were also formulated as dramatically as possible. Question and answer, short colourful descriptions, puns, dynamic actions: all dramatic means of expression were utilised to create a vivid picture that could almost be enacted. Frequently, mnemotechnical or mnemonic helps were inserted by him, that is, devices to help the memory, for example, key words, refrains, grouping passages under one linking phrase, rhyme and the numbering of passages.(51)

Jesus’ instruction was expressed in Aramaic. We know this because the Greek text of the Gospel traditions abounds with Aramaicisms: idioms and constructions proper to Aramaic, not to Greek.(52) Often the variation between a tradition’s form in one or the other gospel can be explained best by the Aramaic underlying oral tradition. Compare these lines:
Teacher, what good must I do . . . ?
(didaskale, ti agathon) Mt 19:16
Good teacher, what must I do . . . ?
(didaskale agathe, ti) Mk 10:17
Good teacher, what must I do . . . ?
(didaskale agathe, ti) Lk 18:18

The phrase is taken from the tradition of the rich young man, a passage found in UrMark and used by all three evangelists. In its Greek form the wording is so different that confusion is excluded: didaskale ti agathon (teacher what good) and didaskale agathe, ti (good teacher what). But in Aramaic the difference is only found in where a pause is put:
Rabbi—tob ma zeh (Teacher—good what is it . . . ?)
Rabbi tob—ma zeh (Teacher the good—what is it . . . ?)

It proves at the same time both the Aramaic origin and its original formulation in oral tradition.

A further study of the contents of the traditions reveals that they must have originated in Palestine. Scores of Palestinian names of places are firmly embedded within the traditions: Capernaum, Bethsaida, the Lake of Galilee, Naim, Jericho, the land of the Gerasenes, and many others. Moreover, the traditions presuppose customs unknown to Hellenists but characteristic of Jewish Aramaic society: the leper has to bring a sacrifice of purification (Mt 8:4), the woman with the ‘flow of blood’ is ritually impure (Mk 5:33), Jesus has frequent disputes about the Sabbath and is called  ‘the Son of David’ (Mt 20:30 etc.), the disciples have to pay Temple tax (Mt 17:24). The miracle accounts presuppose the Old Testament background, such as stilling the storm (God created the sea), multiplying the bread (the manna in the desert), raising people to life (see Elijah and Elisha), curing the blind and paralysed (as foretold by the prophets). All such examples—and these are but a few of them—point unmistakably to a Palestinian origin of the traditions.

Now we know that the Jewish people revolted against the Romans from ad 66-70, which led to their utter defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem. Archaeologists tell us that for many years afterwards there seems to have been no settlement in Jerusalem and that life was disrupted throughout Palestine. The Jewish Christian community too was scattered even before the siege, as we read in Eusebius’ History of the Church. This, then, gives us the latest possible date for the formulation of the traditions.

The authentic early topographical colouring in the gospels, together with the strong evidence of an Aramaic substratum point inescapably to a date before the catastrophe of ad 66-70 for the formation of the gospel tradition. … In the writer’s opinion there is scarcely a passage in the gospels which was appreciably influenced in formulation by the history of the Church in the decades immediately following the year ad 70.(53)

Can we pinpoint the time of formulation even more precisely? We can. It is clear that some narrative traditions were formulated after the resurrection. For instance, the Passion account and the apparition stories could only have been formulated at that time. Also some of the miracle accounts may have received their earliest expression in this period when the apostles began to proclaim what Jesus had done. When Peter was instructing Cornelius for baptism he told him: ‘You must have heard about Jesus of Nazareth, how God poured out on him the Holy Spirit and power. He went everywhere, doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of everything that he did in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem’ (Acts 10:38-39). We can be sure that Peter would amplify such a statement with a description of various healings and other miracles that Jesus had performed. We call such a baptismal instruction the ‘setting in life’ in which traditional teaching was formulated.

We can be sure, however, that the actual teachings of Jesus had been formulated much earlier, during Jesus’ ministry itself. For we know that the apostles were sent out to preach even before Jesus’ resurrection. The sending of the apostles is frequently mentioned in ancient passages.(54)  Many ancient traditions are anchored in such a sending: such as the advice about what to take along on the journey (Mk 6:7-9), the prayer for labourers in God’s harvest (Mt 9:37), the saying ‘I send you as sheep among wolves’ (Lk 10:3), the encouragement to speak boldly (Mt 10:26-27), and so on. Incidents were recorded of how the disciples failed (Mt 17:14-16), or how they reported success (Lk 10:17). But what did they preach?

Since the apostles were ‘sent’—for this is what the name ‘apostle’ means—they were not preaching their own inventions. The substance of their message could only have been the prophetic teaching they had received from Jesus. Jesus must have prepared them for this task by providing rather precise formulations, such as other rabbis did. In other words, here we have the original ‘setting in life’ in which Jesus’ prophetic oracles, his parables, his replies to the Pharisees and scribes, his announcements of the Kingdom and God’s judgement were formulated. It is this which gave rise to the first and oldest collection of oral tradition. We can also be sure that this earliest collection already included some narrative sections. Did the apostles not have to explain what Jesus had done? How he drove out demons? How he could heal people? How his own behaviour was in harmony with his teaching?(55)

The overall consistency of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the gospel traditions also confirms that they were formulated by Jesus himself. A large group can criticise a draft; it cannot produce one that is uniform in thought and style. The camel, as the saying goes, is a horse invented by a committee. Even less can the enthusiasm of a charismatic leader be replaced by the response of his followers. Jesus’ captivating personality, his distinctive teachings, his typical utterances and parables, his characteristic way of acting is so uniform in the passages, documents and gospels that only Jesus himself, the original prophetic leader, could have given them this personal touch. We cannot explain the rays of the sun if we take away the sun itself.(56)

In the previous chapter we saw that the evangelists intended to give a reliable account of Jesus’ teaching. In this chapter we have studied copious evidence to substantiate that claim. The traditions contained in the gospels do go back to Jesus himself and the immediate circle of disciples who were eyewitnesses to all he said and did. But did everything narrated in the gospels happen exactly as stated? Did the evangelists write as we write today? We will discuss this in the next chapter.

 

Chapter 8
How to read the Gospels

Our studies so far have shown that the evangelists were determined to give us a truthful account about Jesus and that they could base their report on accurate sources. As loyal disciples they wanted to present the teaching of the Master as faithfully as possible. We should remember, however, that they lived two thousand years ago and belonged to a different culture. In their presentation they followed the conventions of their own people. Critics of the gospels have sometimes overlooked this, and accused the evangelists of inaccuracy or even deception.

Take for example the gospel of Matthew. We have already seen how important Jesus’ teaching is for Matthew. A study of the contents of the gospel bears this out. Matthew arranged the whole of Jesus’ life around five key sermons: the sermon on the mount (Mt 5-7), the apostolic sermon (Mt 10), the sermon of parables (Mt 13), the hierarchical sermon (Mt 18) and the sermon on the Last Things (Mt 24-25). Comparing Matthew’s narration with that of the other evangelists we find that he often shortens parts of the story, never Jesus’ teaching. Matthew preserved fourteen parables and instructions of Jesus which we do not find in the other gospels. Passing on Jesus’ words without changing one dot or one iota is his aim (Mt 5:18).

Yet he did not do this in a simplistic or naive fashion. The sermon on the mount, which Matthew presents as if Jesus spoke it all on one occasion (Mt 5:1-2; 7:28-29), is made up of thirty-one distinct teachings of Jesus which, as we can see from the other gospels, in reality Jesus taught on many separate occasions. By putting them altogether in one sermon Matthew did not want to claim that they had all been spoken by Jesus on one and the same day. He wanted to show that all these various teachings together make up a comprehensive set of instructions regarding sanctity in Jesus’ kingdom. He knew that people in his time would understand it in this way. By making a mountain the setting for Jesus’ teaching on sanctity, he deliberately compared it with the proclamation of the Old Testament code of laws on Mount Sinai. The presentation therefore had a theological meaning; it served to bring out the importance of Jesus’ teaching.

Or consider the list of Jesus’ ancestors with which Matthew opens his gospel. Such lists were common in Matthew’s time. Most Jews were anxious to be able to prove their descent from orthodox parents. In Jesus’ case it also served to link him to David; everyone knew that the Messiah was to be a descendant of David’s.

Matthew, however, presents the list in a peculiar fashion. He presents the list in three sections: fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen from David to the Exile; and fourteen from the Exile to Jesus himsell (Mt 1:1-17). To arrive at this number fourteen Matthew had to allow himself certain liberties. For instance, between the ancestors Joram and Azariah, he omits Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah.(57) Similar omissions can be seen in other places. In other words, Matthew deliberately mentioned only three times fourteen ancestors. The question is: Why?

It was customary in his day to reflect on the inner meaning of names. Since Jesus was eminently ‘the Son of David’, Matthew focussed on the name ‘David’. In theological speculation of the time ‘David’ had the numerical value of ‘fourteen’.(58) ‘Seven’ is for the Jews the number of blessing, and ‘fourteen’ is thus broken up as ‘two times seven’. By presenting Jesus’ list of ancestors as three times fourteen generations, that is, six times seven generations, Matthew was drawing the attention of his readers to the fact that with Jesus Christ a new supreme blessing began, namely the seventh of a series of seven generations.

Matthew’s readers knew perfectly well that this was a theological construction. In their eyes Matthew was not distorting facts or falsifying the figures (which were perfectly well known from other parts of Scripture anyway). They understood the artistic and spiritual meaning of his presentation.

Stories for reflection

To do justice to the gospels we have to keep this element of presentation constantly in mind. The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert by the devil, for example, has been seriously misunderstood in later times. It was thought by some that Matthew narrated these temptations as hard facts. That he claimed Jesus had actually met the devil in person and had been arguing with him from scripture. When Matthew says that the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, or again that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, they imagined he was claiming these were actual physical events. If they had only known Jewish literature, they would never have made such a mistake.

To grasp the significance of the temptation story we have to go back to the Old Testament account of Abraham’s sacrifice. It will be remembered that God appeared to Abraham and asked him to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:1-19). The story is very dramatic. Abraham actually takes Isaac with him on a donkey, travels for three days to Moriah, climbs with his son to the top of the mountain, binds his son on a makeshift altar and prepares him for the sacrifice. Only at the last moment, when he lifts his knife, God stops him and praises his obedience.

We now know that this story fascinated the Jews of Jesus’ time. A special day of commemoration had been instituted which was called ‘the binding of Isaac’. Meditations were composed on Abraham’s state of mind and on Isaac’s readiness to die. Sermons were preached on the topic, special prayers and intercessions composed. Much attention was devoted to Abraham’s unswerving loyalty to God. And it was asked: Was Abraham during the time of preparation for the sacrifice not tempted to go against God’s command?

Thus a famous meditation arose, in a form known as midrash in Aramaic. This is an elaboration of one scripture passage in the light of other scripture texts. Because of its frequent occurrence in Jewish spiritual writings we can reconstruct more or less how this particular midrash arose.

First of all, it was recognised that God gave Abraham the unusual command in order to test him. Implicit and explicit comparisons were made with the temptations of Job.(59)

In the next stage it was pointed out how confusion and doubt could easily arise in Abraham’s mind. Notice in the following extract from the midrash at this stage of its development how Abraham’s temptation is presented as a thought; and how both his tempting thought and the reply to the temptation are clothed in biblical quotations:

Abraham prayed to God and said: ‘You know that when you told me, “Take your only son Isaac and offer him for a burnt offering,” it was in my heart to answer, “Yesterday you told me, ‘In Isaac shall your offspring be called’ (Gen 17:19), and today you order me to offer him up as a burnt offering.” But although I could have answered in that manner, I suppressed my inclination, and did not do so, as it is said, “as a dumb man who opens not his mouth’ ‘ (Ps 38:13).'(60)

In a further development the same midrash was told, but now the doubts of Abraham were attributed to the devil. In the following excerpt Satan carries the name Samael.

Samael came to see our father Abraham and said to him: ‘Old man, old man, have you lost your senses? Are you going to kill a son who was granted to you when you were a hundred years old?’
‘Certainly,’ Abraham said.
‘And if God should impose still more severe tests upon you will you be able to endure them?’
‘I will,’ he answered, ‘even stronger ones than this.’ Samael continued: ‘But tomorrow God will say to you: “Shedder of blood! You are guilty of having shed the blood of your son.'”
‘Even so,’ said Abraham, ‘I must obey’.(61)

Finally the midrash received its definitive form. According to this the devil tempted Abraham three times. Each time he tempted Abraham by quoting from the Bible and each time Abraham answered in biblical quotations.

While Abraham was on the way to carry out this divine command, Satan met him and said: ‘Why must grievous trials be inflicted upon you? Behold you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your word has supported him that was falling, and now this unfair burden is laid upon you’ (see Job 4:2-5).
Abraham answered: ‘I will walk in my integrity’ (Ps 26:11).
Then Satan said: ‘Is not the fear of God your folly? Please, remember the verse, “Whoever perished innocent?” (Ps 37:25).’ Then, finding that he could not persuade Abraham, he said: ‘Now a word came to me secretly. I overheard behind the veil in the holy of holies (see Job 4:2): “A lamb will be the sacrifice and not Isaac.” ‘
Abraham replied: ‘A liar deserves not to be believed even when he speaks the truth’.(62)

The midrash of the three temptations of Abraham became so well known and was used in so many different forms that it gave rise to similar temptation stories in reflections on other great men. Thus we find temptation stories featuring Isaac, Moses, David, Samson and so on. It had become a common form of meditation, a popular way of reflecting on how great men had to overcome internal doubts and struggles when serving God. People knew that putting the words into the mouth of Satan was just a manner of speaking. What counted was the underlying conviction: the hero in question could have objected in this or that manner, but he remained faithful to the task given by God.

Knowing this literary form helps us understand the story of Jesus’ temptations. Matthew’s contemporaries, when hearing the story, would understand immediately that there is no question of the devil meeting Jesus physically, of him taking Jesus to the pinnacles of the Temple or transporting him to a high mountain. What was at stake was Jesus’ fidelity to his mission. While Jesus was preparing himself in the desert for the beginning of his mission he would naturally have been ‘tempted’ to use money, power, good publicity and so on to help him. Jesus, however, decided that his true strength should derive from God’s own words and that he should rely solely on spiritual means.

This is the whole meaning of the temptation story; and what a powerful message it is! It is very likely that Jesus himself confronted the apostles with this midrash when they, perhaps, urged him to build up a fund of money, become a secular king, or begin to collect an army. But whether the original formulation in this case was Jesus’ own or goes back to a meditation of Jesus’ close disciples its meaning for contemporary readers was clear: instead of relying on secular forms of power, Jesus remained true to the true spiritual character of his mission.

There are at least three other examples of midrash in Matthew’s gospel. The story of the Magi is a meditation on Jesus’ origin and destiny based on seven Old Testament prophecies.(63) The Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8) reflects an ecstatic vision of Jesus in which he understood himself as the new Moses and the new Elijah.(64) The catch of a fish with a coin in its mouth contains elements of a moral tale well known in rabbinical circles. It may well be that in all these cases reflections and instructions by Jesus, or by his closest disciples, were presented in narrative form.

Editorial pruning

It should also be remembered that the evangelists, like writers of all times, had to condense their presentation by cutting out details and focussing on what was essential.

A dramatic hijack lasting twenty hours is telescoped by journalists into an 800-word report. This means: simplifying, cutting short, omitting a lot of details. Matthew often does the same. The Roman officer, whose slave was ill, sent friends to Jesus to intercede on his behalf (Lk 7:1-10). Matthew, however, omits the friends and tells the story as if the Roman officer approached Jesus himself (Mt 8:5-13). According to the old tradition Jesus gave complicated instructions to two of his disciples on how to find the room for the last supper; they had to follow a man carrying a jug of water and so on (Mk 14:12-14). Matthew simplifies by making Jesus say: ‘Go to a certain man in the city’ (Mt 26:18). In the discussion on the greatest commandment, one of the scribes maintains it is love of God and of the neighbour; Jesus expresses wholehearted approval (Lk 10:25-28). Matthew omits mention of the scribe and attributes the saying directly to Jesus (Mt 22:34-40).

A present-day historian might find such details interesting, if not important; for Matthew they were a distraction, not a help. We should keep this in mind when judging Matthew’s accuracy in the famous passage concerning the curse of the fig tree. Ancient tradition had it that Jesus cursed the fig tree on one day (Mk 11:12-14) and that it had withered on the next (Mk 11:20-21). Since Matthew compresses all clashes concerning the Temple into one big day of conflict, he shortens the happenings around the fig tree by saying: ‘At once the fig tree dried up’ (Mt 21:19). This is not a distortion of the facts in order to make a miracle seem greater, as some critics have claimed. It is Matthew’s way of reporting the substance of what happened, rather than the detail.

This loyalty to substance rather than to accidentals also explains why Matthew, in spite of his great respect for Jesus’ words, will Occasionally enlarge on what Jesus had said in order to make their meaning clear to his readers. Matthew was, after all, a teacher in the early Church. He had a pastoral concern. He was not a stenographer recording empty phrases; he was a preacher passing on the living words of the greatest teacher that had ever taught.

In the ‘Our Father’ Jesus had said: ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Lk 11:2). Since Matthew’s Jewish readers could misinterpret this as calling for a political messianic kingdom Matthew adds the explanatory words: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt 6:10). He could put these words into Jesus’ mouth, because this was exactly what Jesus meant when praying for the Father’s kingdom. Jesus taught that disputes should be settled by common discussion. Matthew makes Jesus say that people should refer their problems ‘to the church’ and that they should ‘listen to the church’, even though that particular expression, ‘the church’, arose only in the early Christian community (Mt 18:15-17). The risen Jesus ordered the disciples to proclaim his good news to the whole world. But the formula ‘baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ undoubtedly derived from early liturgical practice (Mt 28:19). Though adhering to Jesus’ actual words as much as possible Matthew was not afraid occasionally to interpret them to make sure the readers would understand what Jesus had meant.

A further example of this can be found in the question of divorce. Jesus had declared a clear principle which was simple and uncompromising. He rejected divorce (Lk 16:18; Mk 10:11-12). The early Christian community, however, correctly understood that Jesus was not promulgating a law; he was stating a principle. And principles allow of exceptions. Paul came across cases that required a decision. Of some married couples, one became a Christian, the other not. With the authority he had as an apostle, Paul decided that, if the non-Christian partner desired a divorce, this should be granted (1 Cor 7:12-16). In the Palestinian community for whom Matthew wrote, it had similarly been decided that ‘fornication’ (whatever they meant by that term) was a just reason for divorce. Matthew could thus make Jesus say: ‘The man who divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, and marries another, is guilty of adultery’ (Mt 5:32; 19:9). Although Matthew here enlarges on Jesus’ original words, he could do so because Jesus himself had given this power of interpretation to his disciples: ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 18:18).(65)

These examples, which have all been taken from Matthew’s gospel, could be paralleled by illustrations taken from the other gospels. The gospels deserve to be treated as faithful and historical documents. But they should not be interpreted in a naive and simplistic fashion. The gospels possess unusual features, due to their particular nature and the cultural expression of the time. In some narration we find traces of midrash. The gospels focus on substance rather than detail. They have a pastoral and theological purpose and are not concerned with historical precision over incidentals. But these traits, on inspection, make them all the more genuine and reliable as faithful records of what Jesus said and did.

Online sections of Jesus for Ever:

  1. Faith and Science
  2. Historicity of the Resurrection
  3. Reliability of the Gospels
  4. Who was Jesus?

NOTES

      39.      R. BULTMANN,Jesus, Siebenstern 1926, p.145.

      40.      Lk 9:21-22; 9:43-45; 13:33-35; 18:31-34; 20:13-18; 22:14-22, 22:37

      41.      CICERO, De Oratore 1162.

      42.      THUCYDIDES, History of the Peloponnesian War I, 22.1.

      43.      LUCIAN, On History Writing, ch. 47.

      44.      FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Contra Apionem I, par.9.

      45.      A. W. MOSI.EY, ‘Historical Reporting in the Ancient World’, New Testament Studies 12 (1965), pp.10-26.

      46.      L. ALEXANDER, ‘Luke’s preface in the Context of Greek preface-writing’, Novum Testamcntum 28 (1986), pp.48-74.

      47.      W. MEEKS, ‘The Social Context of Pauline Theology’, Interpretation 36 (1982), p.270.

      48.      J. SOIRON, Die Bergpredigt, Freiburg 1941, p.139.

      49.      K. BORNHAUSER, Die Bergpredigt, Guetersloh 1923,     p.ll. 50.           Mishna Awot 5:2,8.

      51.      See for example C. F. BURNEY, The poetry of our Lord, Oxford 1925; L. DE GRANDMAISON,Jesus Christ, Paris 1929, vol.I.

      52.      C. C. TORREY even translated the Gospels back into Aramaic. The Four Gospels, London 1933.

      53.      W. F. ALBRIGHT, The Archeology of Palestine, Penguin, p.248.

      54.      Mk 3: 14, 6:6-13, Mt 9:35-10:42; Lk 6:13; 9:1-6; 10:1-20.

55. H. SCHUERMANN, ‘Die voroesterlichen Anfacnge der Logientradition’, in Der historische Jesus und der kerugmatische Christus ed. H. RISTOW and K. MATTHIAE, Berlin 1962, pp.342-270.

      56.      H. RIESENFELD, The Gospcl Tradition and its Beginnings, London 1957.

      57. We can see this by comparing the official list in 1 Chron 3:10-16 with Mt 1:7-11.

58. ‘David’ is composed of three consonants in Hebrew: daleth (value: 4), waw (value:6), daleth (value:4). Together, value:14.

59. P. F. HERSHON, A Talmudic Miscellany, London 1880 (ad Gen 22: 1).

60. Lev. R.Emor 29,9.

61. A. COHEN, Everyman’s Talmud, London 1961, p.56.

62. Sanhedrin 89, col.2.

63. J. WIJNGAARDS, ‘The Episode of the Magi and Christian Kerygma’, Indian Journal of Theology 16 (1967), pp.30-41; see also M. M. BOURKE, ‘The Literary Genus of Matthew 1-2’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960), pp .160 – 175.

64. J. WIJNGAARDS, ‘Ancient Prophets on My Mountain’, in Inhenting the Master’s Cloak, Notre Dame 1985, pp.83-88.

65. J. WIJNGAARDS, ‘Do Jesus’ Words on Divorce Admit of No Exception?’ Jeevadhara 4 (1975), pp.399-411.