Did unjustified Jesus-biography in AD 30-70 struggle to form, circulate, stick?

  • Our question

    A man is trying to start a fire by rubbing sticks together. There is a rainstorm overhead.

    In the first few decades after Jesus was crucified (AD 30-70), did significantly false biographical information about him struggle to form and get a foothold among Christians, and then to obtain any kind of broader acceptance? Was introducing unwarranted (unwitnessed) news, stories, and sayings of the historical Jesus into the stream of Christian oral traditions—intentionally or unintentionally—a difficult feat that would be met with little success?

“Yes, after all…
  • Gospel data got compressed with time

    Early Christians tend to compress the Gospel traditions rather than expand them.1

    Consider these 5 arguments:

    • Oral traditions didn’t grow in detail.2
    • E.g. Mt doesn’t expand Mk’s stories.
    • E.g. Lk doesn’t expand Mk’s stories.
    • Mk’s accounts tend to be longer than Mt & Lk.
    • In general, bad Jesus-bio just founders and dies.

    This is relevant because it is a symptom of bad Jesus-bio having a tendency to flounder and die. What gets left is shorter and shorter traditions as old details are forgotten and new new inventions survive.

    1. For examples of scholars pressing this point:

      E. P. Sanders: “Some tendencies which have been thought to have been generally operative among transmitters of the early Christian tradition have been shown not to have been so common. Thus we have seen that the material did not necessarily grow in overall length.” Even the tendency to use direct discourse for indirect, which was uniform in the post-canonical material which we studied, was not uniform in the Synoptics themselves. For this reason, dogmatic statements that a certain characteristic proves a certain passage to be earlier than another are never justified.” [The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (SNTSMS, 9; Cambridge, 1969), 272-4.]
      Craig Blomberg: “E. P. Sanders, in one of the earliest studies to use computer technology to gather data relevant to biblical studies, analysed in detail the Gospel traditions that have been preserved in textual variants, the early church Fathers and New Testament apocrypha, and demonstrated that no consistent trends exist concerning the lengthening or shortening, preservation or distortion of the tradition. If anything, other shorter studies have demonstrated a slight tendency for detailed material to become abbreviated, condensed, more stereotyped and less vivid as the stories of Jesus were continually retold in the Gentile world, all precisely the opposite of what the first form critics alleged! Certainly, this is the trend that is observable if one compares parallel passages in Mark and Luke, and to a lesser extent in Mark and Matthew. These phenomena led a group of Scandinavian scholars to propose a very different approach to the history of the oral tradition behind the Gospels.” [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd ed. (IVP, 2014), 54.]
      Henry Cadbury: “[t]he place, the person, the time, in so far as they are not bound up with the point of the incident, tend to disappear,” [The Making of Luke-Acts (Macmillan, 1927). 34.]

      E.g. regarding the Gospel of Matthew specifically:
      Martin Hengel: “Dibelius distinguished between the short anecdotal Paradigmata and the Novelle, a developed narrative tale. The first he considered to be more historically reliable than the latter. As a rule, however, Matthew changes Mark’s ‘tales’ through abrupt abridgement into Paradigma.” [“Eye-witness memory and the writing of the Gospels” in The Written Gospel, ed Bockmuehl & Hagner (Cambridge, 2005), 85.]

    2. Stanley Porter: “In other words, the kinds and degrees of change are far more convoluted, rather than being linear and always progressing from simple to complex structures, as the form critics posited. This has been shown especially clearly through extensive recent research on epic poetry, both ancient and modern.” [Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Jesus Research (Bloomsbury, 2004), 78.]
      Albert Lord: “Given the nature of oral traditional composition and transmission … [it] does not in any way necessarily follow that the shortest is the oldest and the longest the latest or that the crudest is the oldest and the most polished the latest. It may be, but it is not necessarily so.” [“The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature,” in The Relationships among the Gospels ed. W. O. Walker (Trinity University Press, 1978), 43.]
      Ernst Abel: “Contrary to the conclusions derived from Form Criticism, studies of rumor transmission indicate that as information is transmitted, the general form or outline of a story remains intact, but fewer and fewer original details are preserved” (italics original).” [“The Psychology of Memory and Rumor Transmission and Their Bearing on Theories of Oral Transmission in Early Christianity,” JR 51 (1971): 275-76]
  • Christians all agreed on Jesus-bio

    Early Christians were largely unified on Jesus-biography.1

    See this page to analyze 11+ arguments:

    • E.g. Luke and Paul's Jesus-bio overlap.
    • Christians were highly organized (enforced conformity).
    • Gospels have diff. puzzle pieces explaining each other.
    • The Gospels mutually agree on details.
    • Christians widely knew true Jesus-bio.
    • Gospels and 1st church agree on Jesus-bio.
    • Christians got their Jesus-bio from 1st church.
    • In general, Christian beliefs mutually fit/agree.

    This is relevant because if fabricated Jesus-bio were cropping up, then we would sooner expect to find a great deal of divergence in beliefs regarding the historical Jesus.

  • Deviant Jesus-bio usually gets killed by witnesses

    A man with an eye for a head stands over a map. There is a man reading a newspaper in the background

    Jesus’s living ministry-witnesses discredited flagrantly false Christian pop-rumors (directly or indirectly).

    See this page to analyze 6 arguments:

    • Christians strove to match Jesus-bio witnesses (or their trainees).
    • E.g. The 1st church killed all deviant Jesus-bio.
    • Handy witnesses abounded.
    • The Jesus-bio teachers matched witnesses.
    • Legends flourished only after witnesses died.
    • Pre-70 novel Jesus-bio invited serious questioning.

    This is relevant because, as a result, false Jesus-bio would just fail to thrive in AD 30-70.1

    1. Paul Eddy & Gregory Boyd: “This conclusion [my insert: re tradents] would suggest that mechanisms were in place in the early church that would naturally limit the amount of legendary material that was introduced into the Jesus tradition.” [The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007), 287.]
      F.F Bruce: “[t]he availability of eyewitness recollection imposes a certain check on the free development of tradition.” [Tradition: Old and New (Wipf and Stock, 1970), 41.]
      William Lane Craig: “The controlling presence of living eyewitnesses would prevent significant accrual of legend. When the gospel accounts were formed, eyewitnesses to what did and did not happen were still alive. Their presence would act as a check on any legends that might begin to rise.” [The Son Rises (Wipf & Stock, 2001), 106.]
  • Christians didn’t lie-invent Jesus-bio

    Rather than inventing Jesus-biography, Christians in AD 30-80 were usually or always honest in their core reporting of it.

    A full article at /early-christians/jesus-biography/honest will analyze these 5 arguments:

    • E.g. Gospel traditions originated honestly.
    • Christian Jesus-bio fit witness testimony.
    • Christians circulated the 1st church’s Jesus-bio.
    • Christians would avoid lie-inventing Jesus-bio.
    • In general, they didn’t invent/lie.

    This is relevant because if false new steams of false Jesus-bio were not being introduced (neither whole-cloth nor through embellishments), then false Jesus-bio would not even start to circulate. In such a case, non-existent Jesus-bio could not thrive, so from the fact that Christians didn’t lie-invent Jesus-bio we can conclude that little or no false Jesus-bio could thrive—it did not exist. (Relevant here too is the fact that, the closer back to Jesus’s crucifixion we get, the few Christians there were to theoretically introduce dishonest Jesus-bio.)

“No, after all…
  • Jesus-bio was not faithfully passed down

    There is a regressing line of speech bubbles with Jesus's head in each. All the bubbles have a check mark above them.

    Christianity’s Jesus-stories faithfully passed down (in AD 30-90).

    This page analyzes four arguments:

    • Christians didn’t even pass down Jesus-bio.
    • Gospels spew minor differences.
    • Christians oft invented core Jesus-bio.
    • Christians wouldn’t succeed (even if trying).

    Christianity’s Jesus-stories were not faithfully passed down (in AD 30-90). This is relevant given the obvious true that corrupted Jesus-bio is “unjustified” Jesus-bio (so if it flourished, unjustified Jesus-bio flourished).

    But no,...

    • AD 125 traditions were faithfully passed down.
    • Christians relayed Jesus-bio w/ great quality- control.
    • Christians largely agreed on Jesus-bio, in all its complexity.
    • Gospel traditions aren’t lies/legends.
    • False Jesus-bio struggled to circulate.