Here’s the most recent question posed by a viewer of The Real Jesus:
Comment from archieabe:
I have a comment for you on a related topic, if I may: The typical Christian believer today seems to think that he or she knows what Jesus said and what Jesus did over 19 centuries ago. In reality, no living mortal today knows (beyond a reasonable doubt) what Jesus said or did way back in the 1st century A.D. No one. Your thoughts?
It’s on the same level as doubting that Abraham Lincoln really gave the Gettysburg Address.
This is a speech that many school children have been taught to memorize in the last 150 years. Yet despite the speech’s prominent place in the history and popular culture of the United States, the exact wording of the speech is disputed. The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address differ in a number of details and also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech.
We don’t have the original copy of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln reputedly wrote on the back of a letter on a train on the way to the ceremony. So who is to say that the Gettysburg Address isn’t the product of the imagination of a popular newspaper writer?
One might counter that the five newspaper reprints prove that a speech was given and from the similarities we can reconstruct what Lincoln said to a 98 percent or better probability. Given the nature of human language, the high degree of similarity is evidence that Lincoln did in fact give the speech and that is approximately what we have today with some small edits by newspaper writers.
But doubters and conspiracy theorists can say that the above photo isn’t really Lincoln and point to a number of problems with the “obviously doctored photo.”
When we compare this analogy to the Gospel accounts, we are basically dealing with the same issues, the same degree of similarity between variant manuscripts, and a larger body of manuscript evidence.
We must also take into account that the disciples preserved Jesus’ teachings, not His exact words. A preacher who gives an early morning sermon and a late morning sermon varies his words and content, but might be said to have “preached the same sermon.” That is what we have with the sayings of Jesus. The “Sermon on the Mount” contains roughly the same words as the “Sermon on the Plain.” In other words, the recorded words of Jesus are teachings that were repeated many times and committed to memory by His disciples.
Here I remind the skeptic that he can probably remember the words to popular songs he heard when he was a teenager. He can recall all but a few words (or perhaps a line) many years later. My elementary school teachers made us memorize poems that I can easily recall today (with some refreshing). This was essentially how the Gospel was preserved for about 15 to 20 years — but by the time Paul began preaching in the 50s, we know that there had been a “Gospel” that various itinerant evangelists had committed to memory. This is the Gospel that later became Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
We have to take into account that the words of Jesus were probably given in Hebrew or a dialect of Hebrew such as Aramaic. The “Gospel” survived this way for about a decade or two before someone thought to record it in Hebrew or Aramaic and then later in Greek. So the four different Greek renderings of the same account are going to have some natural variations.
In fact, the testimony of the church fathers is that Matthew was a “Hebrew” Gospel later rendered into Greek around 63 or 64 A.D.
According to Papias, Mark was the “rendering” of Peter’s Gospel told to Mark, Peter’s interpreter at Rome. Mark’s Gospel was originally Peter’s Gospel in Aramaic, but the Greek version is Mark’s rendering of what Peter preached.
Then Luke is Paul’s Gospel. It has the core of the “proto-Gospel” preached by Matthew and Mark with the addtion of some carefully researched details told to Luke by disciples and family members of Jesus he had known in Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus.
This is the early historical record of how the four Gospels were written. This rings true if we understand anything about how all the Hebrew scriptures came into being. Usually being the record of the sayings of prophets told to scribes and later purposefully redacted in some small details.
We also have to remember that the accounts were not written in a vacuum, but were continually preserved by eyewitnesses who knew each other well and had the opportunity to correct details if someone introduced something novel or deviant from the original words or events.
There is also manuscript evidence as well as several historical accounts that testify to this process. The theories of the liberal critics on how the Gospels came into being are without any documentary evidence and rest on pure conjecture.
Here is an image of the Rylands fragment, which is a portion of the Gospel of John copied about 115 A.D. Most assume this is at least a copy of a copy. Therefore, critics variously claim a date of 67 to 96 A.D. for John’s Gospel. The amazing thing about this fragment is that it matches exactly the words of documents that were copied centuries later which is the basis for the Gospel of John we have today.
Although it is a fragment, it contains a portion of John on both the front and the reverse. The text is approximately where it should be on the reverse if the words of today’s accepted Gospel of John were the same.
In other words, this particular fragment is more reliable than the Gettysburg Address!