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“Jesus’ Followers Fabricated the Stories and Sayings of Jesus”

Dr Paul Copan, PhD, grew up in a Christian home, but did not take commitment to Christ seriously until he was in high school. During that time he came to see that the Christian faith has excellent intellectual credentials and objective foundations - that one could embrace Christ both with a passion and with rational integrity. He obtained his doctorate at Marquette University and is now the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida.

…When it comes to the Gospels, the question must be raised: What actually motivated the evangelists to write what and as they did? A good case can be made that it was their own experience with Jesus.

Now when it comes to actually examining the historicity of the Gospels, we see remarkable indications of accuracy. Take John’s Gospel… this Gospel reveals a first-century Palestinian background rooted in the Old Testament – as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed this through, for instance, their reference to “sons of light” and “sons of darkness.” It also offers exceptional topographical information that has been repeatedly confirmed archaeologically… In light of the extensive usage of the “witness” theme in this Gospel, the author’s emphasis is clear that the incidents included can be relied upon (see 21:24)…

Our first point is this… the Christian can offer good reasons for taking the Gospels to be historically reliable. This, then, may provide a platform for speaking about the claims and deeds of Christ.

Second, the claim that the early Christian communities read back into Jesus’ teachings their own concerns and controversies won’t withstand scrutiny. If such matters were invented and projected backward to Jesus to substantiate them, then why are issues such as spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12, 14)); divorcing when deserted by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:15); eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8); or circumcision (Acts 15) – issues that received significant attention in early Christian communities – glaringly absent in Jesus’ teaching? These disputes often divided many of the early Christian communities, but we don’t find Jesus addressing them…

Third, the Gospels – primarily Mark, Matthew, and Luke – offer a portrait of Jesus within one generation of his death, which tends to ensure the accurate transmission of the Jesus-tradition. It’s taken for granted in New Testament scholarship that Mark’s gospel was written first and that Matthew and Luke independently follow Mark as their primary source. Luke’s gospel, then, was obviously written before its companion volume (Acts) was.

Now, a very good case can be made for the completing of Acts before A.D. 62-64, when Paul was executed under Nero’s order… So we can assert on good grounds that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) may well have been written within thirty years of Jesus’ death – a period in which the accuracy of these Gospels could be easily checked or challenged by eyewitnesses or inquirers.

…Not only were the Gospel writers interested in recording accurate history (see Luke 1:1-4), first-century Palestinian Jews at various levels of society were able to memorize large portions of Scripture. Given (1) the importance of memorization and oral tradition in first-century Palestine, (2) the practice of (occasionally) writing down and preserving the teachings of rabbis by their disciples, (3) the fact that the vast majority of Jesus’ teaching was in poetic (and easily memorisable form), (4) the importance and revered status of religious traditions in Palestine, and (5) the presence of apostolic authority in Jerusalem to ensure the accurate transmission of tradition (and to check potential heresy), we have good reason to believe that the material in the Gospels was carefully and correctly set down.

…Some of Paul’s writings (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians) and James’ epistle… pre-date the writing of the Gospels (from the late A.D. 40s through about 57). James’ using much material from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) reminds us that Jesus’ teachings were being accurately preserved. Besides his familiarity with Jesus’ teaching the Sermon on the Mount (for example, in Romans 12:17-21), Paul is familiar with Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10; compare Mark 10:10-12) and with the tradition of the last supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25; compare Luke 22:19-20). Paul is also familiar with the historical Jesus: the virgin birth (Gal. 4:4), his Davidic descent (Rom. 1:3), and being born under the law (Gal. 4:4, which appears to highlight Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in the temple (Luke 2:22-24)), the last supper/passion (1Cor. 11:23ff.), and the plot to kill Jesus (1Thess. 2:14-15) – not to mention the historicity of his resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Fourth, the simple, unsophisticated nature of the Gospels attests to their reliability rather than to their being fabrications. …Even if actual discrepancies existed in the Gospels, no good historian rejects a document because of conflicts in secondary matters. What is beyond doubt is that there is a general core of agreement among the Gospels. In any event, it’s clear that the Gospel writers were not plotting or fabricating these stories. Otherwise, they would have attempted to be more uniform in their accounting. For example, a fabricated account most likely would not have relied on women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection because of their typically lower status in Jewish society.

… An important criterion that helps us discern the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings and deeds and thus the reliability of the Gospels is the “criterion of embarrassment” – actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or caused difficulty for the early church. In other words, why would the early church fabricate what it knew to be potentially embarrassing incidents? For example, Jesus submits to baptism by the “unworthy” John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-11). Another example is that Jesus didn’t know the time of his return (Mark 13:32)… We could also add incidents such as Jesus’ cursing a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14), allowing unclean spirits to enter swine and immediately destroy them (Luke 8:32-33), his family’s believing he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21), the sometimes unimpressive results of his ministry (Mark 6:5-6; John 6:66), and his refusal to do miracles (Matt. 13:58).

Furthermore, early Jewish Christians wouldn’t likely have concocted stories of miracles to defend Jesus’ messiahship; it simply wouldn’t have helped their case. Most Jews expected the Messiah to be a king, a political deliverer, a shepherd over Israel – not a miracle-worker...

© Paul Copan 1998
Source: Excerpts from ch16. “Jesus’ Followers Fabricated the Stories and Sayings of Jesus”, taken from Paul Copan, “True For You, But Not For Me”, Bethany House (1998) pp100-106. Used by permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group,