Do the Gospels burst with incidental details fine-tuned to an AD 30-70 Palestinian milieu?

  • Question

    A book is open, a picture of Jerusalem is on the page. A picture of a man, a roman soldier, and a king are above the page. There is a checkmark next to their picture. To the right it says "AD 30"

    Over and above simply displaying a vivid realism, do the Gospels stories about Jesus's ministry in AD 30 Palestine read like proper products of that time and place, with the coloring of specifically AD 30 Palestine pervading them? Does every layer of the Gospel tradition not only lack historical implausibilities/ absurdities, but simultaneously reflect—even in complex ways—the AD 30 Palestinian milieu? At least regarding the relevant milieu of its alleged time and place, does it harmonize well with known history? Do the sayings, actions, customs, life-setting, and presuppositions of the characters fit, proficiently display what scholars call “verisimilitude” (a likeness to reality as we know it from the past)? Do a surplus of Gospel details fit the so-called “Palestinian environment” criterion?1

    1. Robert Stein: “According to this criterion if a tradition betrays Palestinian social, domestic, agricultural, religious, etc. customs, this argues that the tradition originated in a Palestinian environment and cannot be a later creation of the Greek, i.e. non-Palestinian church. Again, the argument here is that the closer we can trace a tradition to the time and environment of Jesus, the more likely it is that that tradition is authentic.” [“The ‘Criteria’ of Authenticity” in Gospel Perspectives, Vol 1. Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, eds. France & Wenham (Sheffield, 1980), 236]
  • Historians

    • Craig Evans: “The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of verisimilitude. They speak of real people (e.g., Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, et al.) and real events. They refer to real places. They speak of real customs, institutions, offices, and beliefs. Jesus’ engagement with his contemporaries, both supporters and opponents, reflects an understanding of Old Testament Scripture and theology current in pre-70 Jewish Palestine—as we now know, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In contrast to the verisimilitude of the New Testament Gospels and Acts, the second-century Gospels and gospel-like writings, such as the gnostic Gospels and Syria’s Gospel of Thomas, do not exhibit verisimilitude… The verisimilitude of the New Testament Gospels and Acts is such that historians and archaeologists regularly make use of them. I can illustrate this claim by directing you to a recently published book titled Jesus and Archaeology, a book that grew out of a conference in Israel, which offered the usual learned papers but also included on-site visits and examinations of archaeological excavations. The volume includes thirty-one essays. … If you turn to the index in the back of the book, you will find more than one thousand references to the New Testament Gospels and Acts. There are very few references to the second-century extracanonical writings, and not one of these references has anything to do with historical verisimilitude. [“Can we Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?” Ehrman, Evans, & Stewart (Westminster, 2020), 44-45.]
    • James Charlesworth (on archaeological confirmations in particular): “[f]ormer scholars concluded that the authors of the Gospels are all biased, even creating traditions not from history but from the proclamations about Jesus. Now, thanks to archaeological and historical studies, we know that the descriptions of some Galilean villages and Jerusalem in the Gospels prove that the Evangelists accurately described some installations; they knew what we did not formerly know.” [Review of Keener’s “Christobiography”]
“Yes, after all…
  • Bethsaida was the pre-AD 31 name of an obscure town

    a man stands holding a fishing net in a river that leads to a town in the background

    In AD 30/31 the tiny city of “Bethsaida” was barely known outside of Galilee (a region of Palestine),1 and in that year it's name was changed to “Julia.”2 This is relevant because the city played a key role in the Gospels, and in the Gospels the characters all know the city still as Bethsaida rather than Julia.3 That means the content of the Gospels is very fine-tuned indeed to AD 30 Palestine.

    1. Craig Keener: “[t]he town was not well known outside Galilee. Its name was apparently changed to Julia in a.d. 30” [IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament 2nd ed. (IVP, 2014), 79.]
    2. Josephus: “[i]n the thirty-seventh year of Caesar's victory over Antony at Actium… [Philip] also advanced the village Bethsaids, situated at the lake of Gennesareth... and called it by the name of Julias,...” [Antiquity of the Jews 18:2.1]
    3. For example, we read in Mt 11:21 — “woe to you, Bethsaida!” (cf. Mk 6:45, 8:22, Lk 9:10, Jn 1:44, 12:21)
  • Gospel’s Jesus-sayings spew AD 30 rabbi-rhetoric

    In the Gospels, Jesus spoke and argued in ways that mirrored contemporary Jewish rhetoric right around the time of AD 30. A forthcoming page analyzes 17 examples:

    • AD 30 Rabbis say “You have heard it said…”1
    • AD 30 Rabbis oft say “to what shall I compare.”2
      • AD 30 Rabbis oft say “So-and-so is like…”3
    • AD 30 Rabbis say “get beam out of your eye first.”4
    • AD 30 Rabbis spoke of “moving mountains.”5
    • AD 30 Rabbis spoke of the “kingdom of heaven.”6
    • AD 30 Rabbis oft spoke of “the Son of Man.”7
    • AD 30 Rabbis spoke of “[animal] passing through needle-eye.”8
    • AD 30 Rabbis give something like the Lord’s prayer.9
    • AD 30 Rabbis linked the commands by “You shall love.”10
    • AD 30 Rabbis give parables with interpretations.11
    • AD 30 Rabbis gave proverbs & riddles.12
    • AD 30 Rabbis used hyperbole and overstatement.13
    • AD 30 Rabbis oft delivered beatitudes.14
    • AD 30 Rabbis teach lust, hyperbolically, is adultery.15
    • AD 30 Rabbis teach “you get the mercy you give.”16
    • AD 30 Rabbis distinguished “light” & “heavy” commands.17 [These footnotes all come from Keener's “Suggestions for future study of rhetoric and Matthew’s Gospel.” *HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies*, 66(1) Art. #812 (2010).]

      If true, this is relevant because…

      Craig Keener: “Ancient novels usually reflect the environment of their authors far better than the environment in which the story is set. This tendency is true also of many later apocryphal gospels…1 By contrast, many of Jesus’s reported sayings in the Synoptics (and for that matter, some in John) address a setting that fits Jesus’s particular geographic or chronological milieu, even though these Gospels, too, are written for a later audience… These features likely reflect an origin far earlier than Mark’s…” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 318.]

    1. 1QpHab 6.2; 1QM 11.5–6; CD 4.13, 19–20, 6.13, 7.8,14, 8.9,14, 9.7–9, 10.16; m. Ab. 1:18, 2:13; Mek. Pisha 1.70–71; Ab. R. Nat. 36 A. cf. ‘they do X, but Moses said Y’ (CD 5.18).
    2. See m. Ab. 3:17; Suk. 2:10; tos. Ber. 1:11, 6:18; B.K. 7:2–4; Hag. 2:5; Sanh. 1:2, 8:9; Sipra Shemini Mekhilta deMiluim 99.2.5; Behuq. pq.; Sipre Num. 84.2.1, 93.1.3; Sipre Deut. 1.9.2, 1.10.1, 308.2.1, 308.3.1, 309.1.1, 309.2.1; ARN 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 19, 23, 24, 27, 28, 31A, 2,§10, 4,§14, 8,§24, 9,§24, 12,§29, 13,§§30,32, 18,§§39–40, 30,§63, 32,§§69,70B, 35,§77; b. Sanh. 107a; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 1:2, 3:8, 14:5, 27:6; Pesiq. Rab Kah. Sup. 1:11, 3:2, 7:3; compare Bultmann 1968:179; Johnston 1977:531, 630.
    3. See tos. Suk. 2:6; Sipra Shemini Mekhilta deMiluim 99.2.2; Behuq. pq., 8; Sipre Num. 84.1.1, 86.1.1, 89.4.2; Sipre Deut. 3.1.1, 11.1.2, 26.3.1, 28.1.1, 29.4.1, 36.4.5, 40.6.1, 43.8.1, 43.16.1, 45.1.2, 48.1.3, 53.1.3, 306.4.1, 306.7.1, 309.5.1, 312.1.1, 313.1.1, 343.1.2, 343.5.2; p. Taan. 2:1,§11; Lev. Rab. 27:8; compare Jeremias 1972:101; Johnston 1977:531; Smith 1951:179; Vermes 1993:92.
    4. Removing the beam from one’s eye before trying to remove the chip from another’s (Mt 7:3–5; Lk 6:41–42); this might be a figure of speech, attested in b. ‘Arakin 16b; b. B.B. 15b (Vermes 1993:80; other texts in Lachs 1987:137), if that is not a polemical distortion of Jesus’ teaching.
    5. For example Ab. R. Nat. 6A, 12,§29B; b. Ber. 63b; Sanh. 24a. So also Jeremias (1971:161); Nineham (1977:305); compare Test. Sol. 23:1, possibly derivative.
    6. For example Sipra Qed. pq.; p. Kid. 1:2,§24. This is commonly pointed out, both by scholars of Judaism (e.g. Bonsirven 1964:7, Marmorstein 1968:93; Moore 1971:1:119) and by NT scholars (e.g. Goppelt 1981:1:44).
    7. With for example Jeremias (1971:260–262), regardless of the other debates surrounding its meaning.
    8. The expression persists as late as Qur’an 7.40, though this reference (involving eternal life) might evoke the tradition of Jesus’ usage.
    9. For the Kaddish, see Bonsirven (1964:133); Davies and Allison 1988:595; Hill (1972:136–137); Jeremias (1964:98, 1971:21); Luz (1989:371); Moore (1971:2:213); Perrin (1976:28–29); Smith (1951:136); Vermes (1984:43); for the Eighteen Benedictions, see Bivin 1992.
    10. Gezerah sheva (perhaps borrowed from Hellenism, but notably common in Jewish interpretation; e.g. Mekilta Nez. 10.15–16,26,38, 17.17; Pisha 5.103; cf. CD 7.15– 20; Keener 2003:305, 1184, for further sources).
    11. Like many of Jesus’ parables in the Gospels, early Jewish parables usually have interpretations (see Johnston1977:561–562, 565–567, 637–638; Stern 1991:24; Vermes 1993:92–99; earlier, cf. Judges 9:16–20; 2 Samuel 12:7–9).
    12. For many of Jesus’ sayings as proverbial, see, for example, Damschen (2008:81).
    13. Greek and Roman audiences were also comfortable with these figures of speech (cf. Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 11, 1430b.16–19; Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.33.44; Cicero Orator 40.139; Quintilian Inst. 8.6.73–76; Aristotle Rhet. 3.11.15; Demetrius Style 2.124–127, 3.161; further Anderson 2000:122–124), though this rhetoric may have been disseminated more commonly in the marketplace (cf. e.g. PGM 36.69, 134, 211–212, 320) than in deliberative speeches. For examples of hyperbole, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus Demosth. 18, with Isaeus 20; Philostratus V.A. 8.7; Philostratus Hrk. 48.11.
    14. For example, Contest of Homer and Hesiod 322; Homeric Hymn 25.4–5; Pindar Threnoi fr. 137 (in Clem. Alex. Strom. 3.3.17, using oblios); Polybius 26.1.13 (using makarios); Musonius Rufus frg. 35, p. 134; Apollonius King of Tyre 31; Babrius 103.20–21; Philostratus Hrk. 4.11; Porphyry Marc. 16.276–77. For makarios in Stoic and Christian literature, see Vorster (1990). 30.See, for example, Psalms 40:4, 41:1, 65:4, 84:4–5,12, 94:12, 112:1, 119:1–2, 128:1; Isaiah 56:2; Jeremiah 17:7; Daniel 12:12; Bar 4:4; with a different term, Jdt 13:18, 14:7, 15:10. The term makarios appears 66 times in the LXX, including 25 times in the Psalms (including 1:1, 2:12, 31:1–2=32:1–2), 11 times in Sirach (14:1– 2,20, 25:8–9, 26:1, 28:19, 31:8, 34:15, 48:11, 50:28) and four times in Proverbs (Pr 3:13, 8:34, 20:7, 28:14). 31.For example, 1 En. 99:10; 2 En. 42.6–14, 44:5; Ps. Sol. 4:23, 5:16, 6:1, 10:1, 17:44, 18:6; 4 Macc 7:15,22, 10:15, 17:18, 18:9; Jos. Asen. 16:14/7, 19:8, MSS; Sipra VDDeho. par.; b. Ber. 61b; Hag. 14b; Hor. 10b, bar. At Qumran, see 4Q525 (see Viviano 1992, 1993a, 1993b). In early Christianity, makarios appears about 50 times in the New Testament (NT) and 40 times in the Apostolic Fathers (Matthew comprises roughly a quarter of NT uses).
    15. See Test. Iss. 7:2; Reub. 4:8; b. Nid. 13b, bar.; Shab. 64ab; p. Hallah 2:1, §10; Lev. Rab. 23:12; Pesiq. Rab. 24:2; further, Keener 1991:16–17. Jesus may read Exodus 20:14 in light of Exodus 20:17.
    16. Many compare the Jewish maxim, ‘By the measure by which one metes it is measured to one’ (judgment in the present era in m. Sot. 1:7; b. Sot. 8b; Pesiq. Rab. 39:2; more fully, Bivin 1991; Dalman 1929:225; Davies and Allison 1988:670; Smith 1951:135). Perhaps only one stream of Jewish tradition applied it to the Day of Judgement as Jesus does (cf. Rüger 1969), but it is at least implied elsewhere: a person judged mercifully by another (‘with the scale weighted in my favor’) prayed that God would also judge the other mercifully at the Judgement (Ab. R. Nat. 8A).
    17. Jewish teachers regularly distinguished ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ commandments (Mt 23:23; cf. Mt 5:19; e.g. Sipra VDDeho. par.;; Dalman 1929:64; Flusser 1988:496).
  • Pharisee vs. Jesus debates fit AD 30 rabbi hot-topics

    The Gospel-recorded debates Jesus engaged in with the pharisees actually super-fit rabbinic interests exactly in c. AD 30 Palestine.

    • Rabbis debated which command was greatest.1
    • Rabbis debated purity via inside/outside cups.2
    • Rabbis debated the divorce question asked of Jesus.3
      If true, it matters because these would be straightforward examples where Jesus-bio from the gospels super-fit AD 30 Palestine; these debates really were fine-tuned to that time and place.
    1. Jewish teachers debated among themselves which commandment was the ‘greatest’ (Mt 22:36). Rabbis also discussed which commandant was “greatest.” See Hagner (1993–1995:646). For example, R. Akiba felt love for one’s neighbor was the greatest (Sipra Qed. pq.; Gen. Rab. 24:7).
    2. Jesus plays on current Pharisaic debates about purity regarding the inside or outside of cups (Matt 23:25–26//Luke 11:39–41). See m. Kel. 25:1–9; Par. 12:8; Toh. 8:7, m. Ber. 8:2. Also see the houses material in b. Shab. 14b, bar.
    3. The Pharisees’ divorce question reflects a debate among Pharisaic schools from Jesus’ day (even more clearly in Matthew than in Mark). See, for example, m. Git. 9:10; Sipre Deut. 269.1.1. and arguably Josephus Ant. 4.253 (for Hellenistic audiences).
  • Gospels well-refer to 14 local rulers in AD 30

    A Jewish leader, a roman soldier, and a king are standing with check marks next to each of their heads.

    The Gospels causally reference several known people in AD 30 Palestine Consider 14 examples:

    • Confirmed ruler: Annas—Luke 3; John 18; Acts 4.
    • Confirmed ruler: Augustus—Luke 2.
    • Confirmed ruler: Caiaphas—Matthew 26; Luke 3; John 11, 18; Acts 4.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herod Antipas—Matthew 14; Mark 6; Luke 3, 23.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herod Archelaus—Matthew 2.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herod the Great—Matthew 2; Luke 1.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herod Philip I—Matthew 14; Mark 6.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herod Philip II—Luke 3.
    • Confirmed ruler: Herodias—Matthew 14; Mark 6.
    • Confirmed ruler: Lysanias—Luke 3.
    • Confirmed ruler: Pilate—Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18.
    • Confirmed ruler: Quirinius—Luke 2.
    • Confirmed ruler: Salome (daughter of Herodias)—Matthew 14; Mark 6.
    • Confirmed ruler: Tiberius Caesar—Luke 3.
      This is relevant because discussion of, and casual reference to, contemporary rulers is one of the most straightforward ways we can confirm that a source is correctly bursting with incidental details appropriate to the time and place.
  • Gospel assumptions oft fit AD 30 Palestine

    Gospel events puzzle-piece fit deep background truths of AD 30 Palestine. Some examples (in a forthcoming page) include...

    • The blind rushing to Jesus, explained by their being aware of messianic-prophecy.
    • Multiple rich background assumptions had by the woman at the well.
    • Rich agrarian assumptions rightly contained within Jesus's parables.
    • Jesus's parents avoiding Jerusalem, likely betraying knowledge of Archelaus’s unmentioned slaughter.
    • Solid assumptions pertaining to Pilate's behavior, and Herod's behavior.
    • Herod's fortress having two halls is assumed but not explicitly reported (correctly).
  • E.g. The passion material super-fits AD 30 Palestine

    Incidental details in the Gospels are fine-tuned to local knowledge and experience in AD 30 Palestine. We will eventually analyze these 5+ examples:

    • Superfits: The described Passover meal (with the Temple standing).
    • Superfits: The Jewish feasts (recline etc.) super-fit.
    • Superfits: The described trial of Jesus.
    • Superfits: Roman crucifragrum (for the sake of the Jews).
    • Superfits: Jesus's being buried (despite crucifixion).
      This is relevant because the storyteller (or plural tellers) was either both an unprecedentedly informed and gifted lie-spinner or—more-simply—the material super fitting AD 30 Palestine is simply the result of normal witnesses of Jesus’s passion in AD 30 Palestine truthfully recounting this series of events, and that material making its way to the gospel writers. Of course, the latter is a better explanation for many reasons.
“No, after all…
  • The Gospels don’t even spew details fine-tuned to Palestine

    The Gospels fail to even display incidental assumptions/details fine-tuned to a Palestinian milieu. Explore this claim on this page. This would be relevant if true because then, a fortoriori, they wouldn't burst with data fine-tuned to AD 30 Palestine (which is a more specific version of the hypothesis we just falsified).

    But no...
    • Gospels cite 100+ known rulers, sites, etc.
    • In Gospels all & only Palestine pop-names get clarity.
    • NT name-ratios precisely match Palestine’s.
    • Jesus’ Gospel sayings super-retrovert from Greek to Aramaic.
    • Gospel details reveal coherent-smart travel-plans.
    • E.g. Hope for a “Messiah” was hyper-Jewish (e.g. Peter’s cutting ear).
    • E.g. The Jesus-HighPriest exchange was hyper-Jewish.
    • E.g. Gospel society super-fits Palestine.
    • E.g. Gospel set-pieces super-fit Palestine.
    • E.g. Gospel pricings super-fit Palestine.
    • E.g. Galilee Consideration of acoustics in that area.
    • Hope for a “Messiah” (Kingly, e.g. Peter’s cutting ear).