A significant loophole

I got into an interesting discussion with Jayman777 over at Evangelical Realism on the topic of whether the New Testament documents can be considered independent accounts of first century events. After I pointed out that the NT documents are derived from a common source (church tradition), Jayman replied:

[C]laiming that NT authors are not independent of each other runs counter to the scholarly consensus. In the Gospels alone scholars typically point out the Markan tradition, the Q tradition, the independent Matthean tradition, the independent Lukan tradition, and the Johannine tradition. At least Craig is apparently starting from a consensus position.

My response to that was that, scholarly consensus or not, if you have a bunch of people collaborating for years and even decades on preaching a common and consistent story, it’s rather silly to call them independent sources. If that’s not collaborating on a common story, then what is? But after I made that reply, I realized that I was overlooking a rather significant loophole, and that the scholarly consensus could be right after all.

Some of you are probably way ahead of me on this. The loophole in my response is that it depends on the assumption that there really was a core group of apostles and other significant NT authors who really did meet together and share common experiences and preach a common gospel in the early to mid to late first century. Such a collaboration would indeed rule out the designation of “independent” for their collaborative testimony, but what if it never actually happened?

If we suppose that “the Markan tradition, the Q tradition, the independent Matthean tradition, the independent Lukan tradition, and the Johannine tradition” all arose from men (not necessarily the apostles) who did not in fact ever meet each other, then it is possible that these could all be genuinely independent traditions. If the Gospels and the book of Acts were not historically accurate, and were instead a credulous confabulation of myths, rumors, and urban legends that were merely attributed to Jesus and his alleged 12 apostles, then the collaboration would have happened well after the Age of the Apostles, thus leaving the door open for separate traditions to be truly independent.

I’m not saying that I deny the historical accuracy of the Gospels and the Acts, but then again, I’m a layman rather than a historian. Maybe I should listen to the scholarly consensus, eh? Maybe the NT was written by men who didn’t collaborate the way the NT says they did. If that’s the case, then I stand corrected (and the NT stands refuted).

So thanks, Jayman777,  for bringing this to my attention.


    • exrelayman says


      The first thing to know about the Bible is that it is mostly forgery. By that I mean that books are attributed to people who could not possibly be the authors of those books.

      A second thing to know about the Bible is that it disagrees with itself, as for instance saying in Matthew that immediately after his babtism, Jesus spent 40 days (like the 40 days until pentecost, or 40 years of wandering in the desert – very original) in the desert fasting and was tempted of Satan. While John says on the 3rd day following his babtism, Jesus went to the wedding at Cana. There are many such internal disagreements.

      A third thing to know about the Bible is that it presents a ludicrously illogical theology: A God who hates sin makes everybody sinners because 2 people sinned. A God of love cannot forgive sin unless a barbaric blood sacrifice is made to it. Believers are enjoined to symbolically eat their God. A God who says forgive your brother till 70 times 7 times will condemn sinners to eternal torture for one life with one mistake – unbelief, regardless of how moral the person was.

      A fourth thing to know about the Bible is that there is not a speck of evidence that God, Satan, sin, souls, heaven, hell exist. There is the same amount of evidence for these things as there is for the tooth fairy.

      A fifth thing to know about the Bible is that many passages in the New Testament are demonstrably copies of earlier passages from Homer and Greek dramas, or are ill concealed replays of earlier feats done my Moses, Elijah, Jonas, etc. Such contrivance does not have the appearance of authenticity. The Old Testament has copying problems of its own.

      So now you, wanting to know 1 thing about the Bible, have been told 5 things about the Bible. I don’t ask you to believe me, I have only made assertions. But I do invite you to investigate for yourself the validity of what I have said. Hint – Google is your friend.

      • RW Ahrens says

        Many scholars now think that Moses himself was probably a mythical figure, as his life also adheres to the mythical style elements much as did Hercules’ and Jesus’.

        Besides, if the first five books of the bible were written by him, and he really did write about his own death, I guess we would be looking at that as proof of an afterlife? Or at least as having talked to a medium…or maybe an early case of ghost-writing? (Ha! ghost-writing – I kill myself! lol!)

      • Janney says

        I don’t ask you to believe me, I have only made assertions. But I do invite you to investigate for yourself the validity of what I have said.

        Oh, Christ, there’s nothing about the Bible I want to know badly enough to actually investigate it. Thing number three will do, and you don’t have to open your eyes in the morning to see that one.

  1. unbound says

    But think about all the other mythologies that we don’t take seriously anymore. If you dig deeply into Norse mythology (for example), you’ll find that there is some degree of variation in the attributes and behaviors of each of their gods depending on which Norse tribe you talked to. The tribes didn’t work closely with each other to define the legends, but there were travelers that would bring tales back and forth between the tribes which resulted in relatively consistent notions about their gods.

    Along a similar vein, UFO encounters have a certain degree of consistency regarding how the spaceships and the aliens look. The people don’t talk to each other, but they are certainly aware of those that claim encounters…so their tales tend to be consistent with rather minimal knowledge of the details of other encounters. Very few people take UFO encounters seriously anymore (at least I hope), but there would certainly be a case for a lot of independent accounts.

  2. wholething says

    It is not enough to show that sources are independent. You have to show that the independent sources agree with one another, so you know you’re not looking at a syncretic fusion of independent ideas. Where the New Testament concurs, it is not independent. Where it is independent, it does not concur.

    The Q seems to be more than just where Matthew and Luke have similar material that Mark lacks because we now have Thomas that shares material with Matthew only, Luke only, Mark only, and with all three. Matthew and Luke also share parables that do not appear in Mark or Thomas. This means all four relied on the Q document, which may have been supplemented by each group independently.

    So we have to separate the Q from the independent Markan tradition. The early Q teachings had to have come from somewhere and most or all it may have come from one teacher who may have been named Jesus. We will call that the Jesus sect.

    Then we have the teachings of Paul which center on a messianic message and show no interest in the Q teachings. We will call that the Christ sect.

    You weld these two independent traditions together with ominous portents like the destruction of a city that is a religious center and, viola, a new religion.

    • DR says

      I hadn’t read your comment before chiming in. You’re absolutely correct. What’s important is not independence, but *independent confirmation*, and there’s none of that in the NT.

    • redpanda says

      Where the New Testament concurs, it is not independent. Where it is independent, it does not concur.

      Forgive me for not knowing much about Biblical scholarship, but I guess an obvious (if probably ignorant) rebuttal to this would be that scholars assume the non-independance from the concurrence. That is to say that if Matthew and Luke agree on something, why should we assume that it’s because they copied it from each other (or from Q), and not that they simply independently concur on the subject?

      • CJO says

        Matthew contains about 90% of the verses in Mark, many near verbatim and in order. Luke contains less of Mark but still a substantial portion of it, and is more free with the order, but there is certainly a literary relationship. Just what that relationship is (i.e. who copied from whom) is a much trickier question known as the Synoptic Problem. Markan priority with Luke and Matthew making use of it and Q independently is still the majority view known as the two-source hypothesis, but there are scholars who dispute Markan priority and scholars who dispute the existence of Q.

        Only the most conservative of apologists dispute that there is clear evidence for literary dependence.

  3. Kevin says

    Where’s the evidence that the teachings came from a single person? If they did, that person was seriously bipolar.

    “Love your neighbors.”

    “If anyone doesn’t follow me, slay them before me.”

    “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    “The law and the commandments must be followed to the letter until ‘everything’ is accomplished.”

    The myth of an historical Jesus can be discounted merely by looking at the fabulous (as in fable) accounts of his “life”. Not to mention a complete and utter lack of corroborating contemporaneous eyewitness evidence of his existence.

  4. says

    I’m a layman myself and recently I’ve become interested in the Bible and its origins. I have read some books by modern critical scholars and one of my favorite authors is Robert M. Price. He’s a proponent of “Markan Priority” and “The Christ Myth Theory”. He does a podcast on USTREAM called “The Bible Geek” that I find fascinating.

    from Wiki:
    Markan priority is the hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark was the first written of the three Synoptic Gospels, and that the two other synoptic evangelists, Matthew and Luke, used Mark’s Gospel as one of their sources. The theory of Markan priority is today accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars who also hold that Matthew and Luke used a lost source of Jesus’s sayings called Q. Their conclusion is largely based upon an analysis of the language and content relationship between the various books. The understanding that Mark was the first of the canonical gospels and that it served as a source for Matthew and Luke is foundational to modern critical scholarship.

  5. DR says

    Yes, Q and Mark are “independent”, but they cover completely different events and speeches. The same is true of the Matthean and Lukan additions to both of these. They may be somewhat “independent”, but they do not confirm each other at all.

  6. grumpyoldfart says

    I can imagine the early Christian leaders discussing which parts of their new religion are important and which are not. Everybody would have been starting with the same myth, but all of them would have had different ideas about how the myth should be taught to the mugs in the pews. So a mixture of collaboration and independence from day one.

    And the situation would have got ever more convoluted as new congregations appeared with new preachers putting their own spin on familiar stories, or making up brand new stories, just to keep the mugs excited.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if 1st century gospel writers had the same ethics as 21st century Creationists: cherry-picking earlier texts, lying by omission, and just straight-out lying.

  7. CJO says

    There’s a great deal of equivocation going on in jayman’s argument. First we need to remember that what is at issue is events in the putative career of Jesus. So what sort of elements of the texts we’re concerned with are narrative elements, not sayings. And Q is all sayings supposedly, so the question of whether it’s truly independent of Mark is moot.

    Then we can go on to “the independent Matthean tradition, the independent Lukan tradition, and the Johannine tradition,” each of which does contain unique narrative elements, and it is these upon which the argument has to depend.

    Matthew: A nativity that utterly contradicts Luke’s and contains absurdities such as the slaughter of the innocents. Guards at the tomb, a zombie apocalypse, post-resurrection appearances in Galilee, not Jerusalem.

    Luke: A nativity that blatantly (and I would argue quite self-consciously) disregards Matthew’s and is inconsistent with known history of the period. Trial before Caiaphas as well as Pilate, tendentious relocation of events in Jerusalem to set up narrative in Acts.

    Conclusion: it is precisely where the individual narratives are most independent that they are the most obviously fictional and tailored to the theological and narrative requirements of the text.

    And then there’s John. Short form: “independence/dependence” is a misleading dichotomy when talking about how one text influences another. John is not independent of the synoptics in the sense that the authors were unfamiliar with them. It is independent in that they found the texts theologically unacceptable. The conclusion is roughly the same, though for different reasons that I don’t have time to get into.

  8. Stevarious says

    The biggest problem for me with the gospels is the plain fact that they were not written any time within decades of the events they claim to describe and they were certainly not written by the people they pretend to be written by.

    The way I think about it is this – compare Jesus’ death to the Kennedy assassination. We still don’t know for certain what happened to JFK, even with copious contemporary documentation, and fantastic claims are made about the events in question (thought rarely does anyone claim any actual magical stuff happened).

    Now, think of how much worse it would be if not only were there no video of the Kennedy assassination, but there were no photographs or written accounts of the event or of ANY of JFK’s life or death? What if the first things ever put to paper about his life were written decades after his death? What if the only accounts we had were written anonymously, and were claimed to have been written by people we know couldn’t have written them? And what if we were looking back on these accounts from centuries in the future, and these were the only sources we had to go on? Still more – what if the narrative we were presented with contained obviously mythical elements, because they were written by people who worshipped him as a deity before the written accounts existed? “JFK rebuilt the castle of Camelot in DC!” “JFK defeated the Russians in Cuba singlehandedly!” “JFK came back to life and built a spaceship and flew to the moon, where he awaits – EVEN NOW – his time to return and lead America into world domination!” That is what it would say. The idea that we would be able to say ANYTHING definitive about whether JFK was even a REAL PERSON, let alone was a president, let alone was really assassinated, is laughable.

    And so is the idea that we can take the new testament as anything resembling a historical account of anything. The new testament is only evidence that a bunch of people wrote some stories about a guy named Jesus in the first century. It is not evidence, at all, for any of the events it portrays – let alone that God exists! – any more than the three books that talk about the life and times of Frodo Baggins is evidence that Frodo – and Sauron – exists.

    Stories are evidence of storytellers. That’s all.

    • wholething says

      JFK came back to life and built a spaceship and flew to the moon

      Ah, so you subscribe to the “Single Rocket Theory”.

      The gospels don’t mention who wrote them. The early church wanted them to have been written by someone close to the apostles so they assigned names to them with some fanciful reasoning.

      Some of the epistles make false claims of who the author was, however.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *