Why not? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. All legends, folk lore and myths that have some obscure roots in true history, but overtime became seriously embellished to what they are today. As adults we easily pass off these characters as fictitious, but with Jesus how can we not? Why is Jesus Christ, the miracle messiah that resurrected from the dead, believed to be a true character in history by many adults when He could just as easily fit into the same categories as the tooth fairy?
This is an outlook many skeptics have the real person of Jesus. Famous books on the issue is John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, and then of course there are books by Eliane Pagels, Bart Ehrman and the famous Jesus Seminar. These scholars and authors use the gap in the appearance of the New Testament gospels after the death of Jesus as their leeway. Since the gospels didn’t begin circulating until sometime around 60AD and 70AD, who is to say legend hadn’t completely distorted and taken over real historical events? According to these scholars the accounts of Jesus are not eyewitness testimony but concocted legends and myths.
According to Burton Mack, “The first followers of Jesus were not interested in preserving accurate memoirs of the historical person… Each group created Jesus… in the image appropriate for the founder of the school it had become or wanted to become.” Bart Ehrman claims, “Stories were changed with what we would strike us today as reckless abandon… They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up.” According to skeptics, Jesus was just a great speaker or teacher. One that would be exaggerated into legend years after His death. Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar writes, “We have been betrayed by the Bible. In the half-century just ending [written in 2000], there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking or caring person is any longer willing to endorse… Jesus needs a demotion.” Ouch! Tough words from tough critics.
First what we must ask is, is it true the gospel accounts were written so long after Christ’s death? Yes this is correct. Matthew was written sometime between AD 65-85, by Matthew an eyewitness of Jesus’ life. Mark was written sometime between AD 65-70, by John Mark, a translator for Simon Peter taken from Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Luke was written sometime between AD 65-90, by Paul’s physician Luke. Luke’s writing was based on a collection of eyewitness accounts. Lastly, the gospel of John was written around AD 65-95 by John, an eyewitness of Jesus. But does a time gap alone immediately prove that the story was concocted? After all, they’re basing this entire conspiracy based off the written records we have. There very well could have been written records of Jesus written only a few years after His life that either no longer exist, or have yet to be discovered. After all, Luke did write in the opening of his gospel account that many others have set out to write detailed accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Either way, when one formulates theories from speculation they can be just as easily refuted with additional speculation.
That’s still not good enough though. Lets work with what we have and for the time conclude there were no other accounts recorded prior to the gospels. This time gap is still troubling. As Ehrman asks, “Where did these people get their information from?” The answer is of course, oral tradition. But oral tradition is one aspect of history that many scholars praise and trust, yet other scholars scoff at.
Telephone, the game that never works…
Do you remember the game “telephone?” Ya know, the one where you line up with friends and a message starts at one end of the line and then works it way to the other end via whispering in each other’s ears. The point being to see how much the message had changed by the time it got to the other end. And every time the end of the line was reached, the message was completely different. Not just a little off, but completely different. Somehow “Mary had a little lamb,” ended up as “Andy was kissing Maggie in the hallway,” thirty children later.
Well, this is why skeptics doubt oral tradition. They think of lessons we all learned as kids from the game “telephone,” that messages overtime are considerably altered due to being misheard or misunderstood. The further down the line, the worse it gets. Although the lesson from the “telephone” game is true to a certain degree, skeptics of oral tradition are overlooking one minor and one major problem.
The minor problem: The telephone game fails with kids. Mostly because the kids are just being silly kids. They know the point of the game and are clever enough to intentionally alter it. Play the same game with monitored adults in serious situations and the message comes out much more accurate than with children.
The major problem: We often tend to think of oral tradition among people in today’s culture and society. What we have to understand is that people in the first century lived a life vastly different from ours today. Today we live in a written culture where everything can be written down virtually anywhere; computer, phone, notepad, napkin, etc. We’re very literate and have very easy access to writing material. We are so accustomed to being able to save our thoughts on or in physical objects that historian B. Gerhardsson refers to it as “the dethronement of memory.”
The first century by contrast was an oral culture. At best, maybe one-fourth of the population could read. And of those that could read, only a very small percentage could write (scribes). So naturally this oral culture was one in which information and truths were passed down orally. When important events would occur, history shows that communities would rally together and had systems on how to retain the information. There were even separate systems for oral histories and oral traditions. Community members would often recite the information among a large number of their peers, who all would in turn correct the speaker if any errors were heard. Rabbis of the time would try to repeat teachings, sometimes as often as 400 times, in front of their peers to ensure it was correctly etched in their memory. This practice was very common in Jewish tradition. And with Jesus being a Jewish teacher with Jewish disciples, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say the disciples maintained the same discipline in retaining information. One thing we can be sure on is that people in the first century had regimented memory retaining techniques that would surpass the memory capabilities of any lay person today.
The Oral History of Jesus
Oral histories of Jesus were circulating in the Roman Empirelong before any written accounts (that we know of) were created. When reading First Corinthians, Paul uses the words paralambano, or “I received,” and paradidomi, or “I passed on” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25, 15:3-7). Testimony that Paul received his education in Jesus orally, since the four gospels as we know them had not been created yet.
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NIV)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…” 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (NIV)
Now if we look at a timeline of when Paul’s ministry began we can determine when it is that he heard these traditions. Acts 9 describes Paul’s encounter with Jesus marking the beginning of his ministry, which is dated to the year AD 33. Acts 9-12 describe Paul’ travels to Damascus, Jerusalemand Tarsuswhere he learned these oral traditions, which are dated to AD 35-47. So it is possible Paul learned these traditions within a few years from when Jesus died. If Paul learned it within a few years that means the tradition was well known and circulated by that time, meaning the traditions and histories themselves originated within months of Jesus’ death. The circulation of these traditions and histories being amongst the eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life.
So that huge and massive gap from between when Jesus lived to when the gospels were written is no longer such a daunting thought when one understands the oral traditions of the Jewish people at this point in history. Considering the methods by which these oral histories and traditions were maintained one cannot assume that fairy-tail legends of Jesus became the story of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels. Paul’s recital of these histories in Acts which do not contradict the gospels is testimony of this. Scholar A. N. Sherwin-White among other theologians points out that two generations is simply too short of time for any legends to emerge of Jesus anyways. Legends take hundreds upon hundreds of years to become main stream.
“…the oral histories emerged early, they emerged in the context of the eyewitnesses, and they remained relatively unchanged as they spread across the Roman Empire. Eventually, these oral histories made their way into the documents that we know as the Gospels. Perhaps most important of all, this movement from oral history to written history occurred before the end of the first century, while eyewitnesses of the original events were still living.” –Timothy Paul Jones, Theologian.
To answer Ehrman’s earlier question, that is where they got their information from!
 Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, (New York, NY: Harper One 1990) Pg 46
 Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The followers of Jesus in History and Legend (New York,NY: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pg. 259
 Note that prominent skeptics do not doubt Jesus existed. They just doubt the miraculous accounts of his life. No prominent and well educated scholar believes that Jesus never existed.
 Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus (New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, 1996) Pg. 306.
 Other famous critics that maintain this conspiracy are Thomas Jefferson, David Friedrich Strauss, and James Cameron… yeah the guy who made Titanic and Avitar.
 Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 91
 Bart Ehrman, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman,” March 28, 2006.
 B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 123
 Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 95
 Ken Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) Pgs. 34-51.
 B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 135
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis,MN: Fortress Press 2003)Pgs 318-319
 Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 98
 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, UK; Clarendon, 1963) Pg. 190
 Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg.99