Beyond Tradition

The Evangelists

by Sean D. Harmon

Part I of III :


Traditional history or formulated legend?

Christianity began with first century Jews in Judea, Jerusalem. Though we know for a fact that even though there were various feuds between Jewish sectarian groups, not only did esoteric ideas or foreign views about Yahweh not naturally formulate and evolve rapidly within the Jewish culture without much resistance (evident by the ongoing contention the Christian movement faced from Jesus to his apostles), but first century Jews were traditional preservationists, not fiction artists or myth-mongers radically inventing or changing accounts and sayings of their traditions, oral or written, to conform to evolved theological ideas or views that ran contrary to Judaism, particularly in regards to the direct relationship between God and man. From other various articles, not only do we know that the author of the gospel of John was written by a contemporary of pre-70 Judea (discussed here: Meet the Ghost Writers, John), that Matthew himself was also Jewish writing to other Jews and that his work was constructed strictly from a Jewish framework (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1), but that the gospel traditions show a stark Aramaic substratum or underlining as its foundation (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #3). These factors demonstrate that the baseline tradition of the gospels were profoundly connected to Second Temple Jewish culture (discussed here: The Jesus-myth Myth: A Judaic myth?; and: Gospel Date, A Jewish Messiah in a pagan world; and: The myth that never was, The Jewish gospels). It's therefore no coincidence that the first Christian established church was settled at Jerusalem (Act 1:4, 6:7; Galatians 2:1-2).

It should probably also be stated here that not only did I establish the fact that there are Jewish influences saturating the gospel works (in the articles previously noted), but I came up with some rather strong arguments that at least the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are pre-70 CE works and date within (not after) 7-29 years (40-62 CE) of the actual event (the discussion starts here: Gospel Date).

Presuming this to be the case doesn't necessarily make it an impossibility that the gospel stories became rapidly distorted with forming legend, but impossible to argue that this was a gradual and unintentional process that would have occurred within the same timeframe the facts of these events were still fresh on the minds of eyewitnesses, both friend and foe. In other words, if a cult movement about Martin Luther King Jr. formed anywhere within 1976-1998 that began to tout false facts about the history of King, even if those claims were positive about him, one would expect quite an uproar from both King's foes and supporters, those who had lived at the time as direct eyewitnesses to the events and speeches King took part in, as well as the next generation that was associated or in close contact with those eyewitnesses. This is much more so in the case of Jews. If a positive book was written even today about Moses that deified him as a God, imagine the reaction this would spark among the Jewish communities, and this is no less than 4,000 years after the event.

However, since the gospel date is too controversial to use a priori one way or the other, how can we really be sure the stories in the gospels are not a result of Christian legend and fiction, or a community that got carried away with zeal towards their goals of evangelizing to a hostile and competitive ancient world by editing, reshaping, embellishing, even inventing the traditions around Christ as they saw fit? We know for a fact the New Testament works are bias works. They weren't written by skeptics or even critics of the faith, but adherents to the faith. Moreover, even if we don't take the unlikely aggressive stance and just assume them outright liars or conspirators driven by willful deceit, it would be ridiculous and unrealistic to assume that the early Christians, before and during the gospels were written, were not influenced by a least some, possibly even a good deal of natural legend fluidity, whether from sheer enthusiasm or to specifically serve as propaganda to further the evangelistic cause of the early church.

Even though the first Judeo-Christians thrived from within a conservative Jewish system, just how strict this system actually was has been questioned by some. We must also factor in that the traditions may have circulated some thirty years orally (presupposing late gospel date here), before written texts were even conceived. We also need to keep in mind that the authors of the gospels were not writing for the sole purpose of chronicling accurate history specifically for public archives, even though accurate history is obviously contained therein. Nor were they writing to those outside the Christian church, as mentioned before, but to other adherents who had already been familiar with the traditions and thus partial to them.

We have good evidence that the gospels were constructed from oral stories (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #6), or that the authors had collected patches of oral tradition that flowed prior and strewn them into written texts, so we could certainly expect telescoping of certain accounts, selection of accounts over others, omissions, condensing and even conflation of certain accounts to make it easier as oral constructs. We could also assume that there was a certain amount of paraphrasing or rearranging at the discretion of each gospel writer either for the sake of convenience, clarification or highlighting an account and its theological significance, or to emphasize particular viewpoints, and we also know that the latter is significant in most major historical material, hence even more so in religious material.

With that said, however, there is a line here between bias and fiction, omission and invention, paraphrasing and fabricating, rearranging and embellishing, theological highlighting and falsification. So, how can we be sure that the apostles and eyewitnesses who conveyed and administered these traditions orally, the community of Christians who orally told and retold these traditions as the apostles conveyed them, and the gospel authors who eventually selected these traditions when transcribing them into a written outline called the gospels didn't cross that line?


Criticism methodology

Skeptics often confuse textual criticism here and attempt to use the "open window" argument to support the idea of nefarious first century scribe copiers. They argue that there may have been some years after the composition of the original gospels before copies began to circulate prior and up to the turn of the century, thus the gospels went through drastic stages of embellishment from scribe to scribe and from copy to copy. They then erroneously assume the church, after the turn of the century, had a uniform authority from about the second century onward that allowed them the ability to control the distribution and flow of these sources within the entire Roman Empire, even though the church didn't become uniform or possess any type of governing authority until at least the fourth century.

To simplify this theory: apostles complete their gospel works sometime between 70-100 CE (assuming the post-70 CE date is correct); scribes began to make copies of the gospels; distribution of these copies begin to circulate with drastic changes throughout each gospel by each scribe; around the second century, the church begins to collect these copies subsequent to the drastic changes with the power to prevent the distribution of copies they don't like, thus we would never know what the originals actually said and if the bible we have now accurately reflects what was in the originals. 

The reason it's vital in light of this theory to assume there was an extraordinary amount of power and organization within the church of the second century is so it can then be proposed that it was easy for scribes to track down and destroy the source copies once the additional copies were made with the presumed addition, drastic alteration or modification they made themselves, in order to prevent further copies being made from the source copy that would conflict with the newer revised copies. More on that later.

This overall theory relies on what is called redaction criticism. There is also its close parent theory called form criticism. The latter deals primarily with how the traditions in its earliest stages developed and circulated before the gospels even came into conception, which typically starts from an oral form (stories and rumors about Jesus, etc.), then imagines possible hypothetical pre-gospel written forms or early drafts (Q, M, L, etc.) that eventually led up to the final product known as the gospels. Of course, it's important to remind ourselves that these are merely theories.

As the authors of the gospels sat down to complete their works, they presumably sifted through all these oral and pre-gospel written sources, patching together traditions, as well as editing, redacting and modifying their own content in the process of the final drafts. Form criticism generally deals with the traditions before the gospels, and redaction criticism deals specifically with the original authors, their literary intentions and how and why they may have altered certain earlier traditions as they transmitted them to finished texts that would become the gospels. However, neither represents textual criticism even though form and redaction criticism is often closely associated with textual criticism, and it might be prudent for us to take some time and point out where they are completely separate issues.

Textual criticism is not a theory, it's a fact, and there have been a few who erroneously argue the three are correlated in order to boost the theories that are more speculative. This way, they attempt to bridge the facts we do know: there are variants between the earliest copied manuscripts that we have in our possession that were hand copied, and what we don't know: what happened between the earliest stages of the Jesus stories and oral tradition up to the time the original gospels were written. Obviously textual criticism deals with the former, which is the physical evidence: the earliest hand copied manuscripts we have in our possession from about the third century onwards and the comparisons we can make between them. Redaction and form criticism are theories that deal with the latter: what we don't know but can only guess happened before and up to the original written gospels. Redaction and form criticism is a completely separate issue and is heavily dependent on pure speculation.

To simplify this, form and redaction criticism proponents theorize that the traditions of Jesus that would form the foundation of first century Judeo-Christianity started out simple: rumors, stories, oral tradition; followed by hypothetical written sources or first drafts such as Q, M, L, pre-gospel sources, getting more complex as Christian traditions evolved; then the gospel of Mark (who may have made his own redaction to the traditions), with Matthew (supposedly using Mark and these pre-gospel sources) and Luke (supposedly also using Mark and pre-gospel sources) following in its footsteps, all of which whom presumably edited and redacted the traditions further as they saw fit; and finally John.

Form and redaction criticism are theories that envision an evolution and an ongoing development of simple oral to complex written tradition as the first century church grew and became more organized, theologically-based and dogmatic. So, of course, when conflating form and redaction criticism theory with textual criticism fact, this naturally implies that a whole lot of invention and embellishment most likely occurred during these stages. Since the theory of redaction and form criticism has no physical evidence of support, this is why proponents of these theories often use textual criticism to support that changes did in fact occur between the earliest gospel manuscripts that we have and can compare prior to the invention of the printing press. However, textual criticism cannot be validly correlated with the theory of form and redaction criticism because the latter assumes much more drastic development (i.e. changes and alterations) had occurred than the textual criticism supports.

Textual criticism deals with the variants between the copies we have and can compare. Intentional variants (i.e. a conscious change of a passage for a specific reason) between the early copied manuscripts are the minority and very few relevant to the volume of variants and texts that are compared. An example of an intentional variant in question that has the most impact on the text is the ending of Mark (16:9-20), and the reason we know it's a variant is because some of the earliest manuscripts we have don't reflect this account the same -- some manuscript copies have this passage, some don't and just end at 16:8, and some have a different redaction after 16:8. However, not only are these types of dramatic changes extremely rare, but this is why textual criticism is so important because by comparing the variants between the earliest copies of Mark, it proves that such a radical alteration was not only rare but could not have been done covertly, or a variant we obviously could not have known (discussed in more detail here: The Genesis, The textual reliability issue). Moreover, though textual criticism shows that variants between the thousands of manuscripts we have are numerous, once again, intentional redaction is the minority, with the vast majority of variants being just inadvertent scribal error.

Were the fantastic accounts of Jesus -- i.e. supernaturalism, miracles, his own claims about himself, etc. -- which make up about 70% of the gospel traditions merely legend and theology that formed and infused into the accounts as they were transmitted orally and then to written form? The theory of form and redaction criticism implies a firm yes. Textual criticism says this is not the case, even though numerous variants exist between the written copies, because modifications that are as radical as the ending of Mark are statistically nonexistent in comparison to the thousands of minor variants that do exist between the copies. It becomes clear when we understand and distinguish these theories why it's easy to use the argument of textual criticism to convince people, particularly those not privy to the distinctions between the theories, that form and redaction criticism theories are just as plausible as textual criticism. Now that we understand the difference between textual criticism and the hypotheticals of form and redaction criticism, and that the former actually counters the latter, is form and redaction criticism still a plausible theory?

We can look at the historical logic of this theory. The communities that the early Jesus-traditions circulated were predominantly illiterate (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #3), thus written documents to churches would have been public works, read out loud in the churches to those who couldn't read or just couldn't afford their own copy.[1] Imagine drastically altering an account in a manuscript that was in public use. We know Christian works were copied and distributed to other churches very early on and this was directly instructed by the authors themselves (see Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; 1 Timothy 4:13). Polycarp also noted that the transmission and sharing of Christian literature from church to church was a common practice,[2] thus we can certainly assume the gospels were circulating this way right at their public release.

We indeed know for a fact that copies of the gospels were circulating en masse by at least the second century, and this is evident by the variety of gospel verse quotes by different church fathers of that era, scattered as far north as France, to Turkey and as far south as Egypt (discussed in more detail here: The Genesis, Gospel date consensus). Since we know that there is no evidence of a uniformed church authority between the turn of the first century to about the fourth century that would have been able to control the distribution of copies throughout Judea and the rest of the Roman Empire, even though we don't have the gospel originals or even the bulk of the second century manuscript copies (scant fragments we have from the second century, but most date to about 200 CE and later), we at least have a diverse variety of the scattered manuscript copies that would have descended from the copies circulating from the second century and earlier.

So, from a logical standpoint, this makes a theory of such radical covert or unknowable alterations and modifications to the stories during this time rather complicated and doubtful. Moreover, the church before the fourth  century simply did not have the type of power and authority to covertly control these modifications, and copies were already circulating too widely by then. There was no internet, thus no way to possibly keep track of this process, hence most, if not all the variants during this time of written copies have been weeded out by textual criticism methodology and by comparing their later manuscript descendants or text-types.

Therefore, the first century is our primary concern here, or better yet, before the gospels were even written, which must be dealt with in a completely different fashion. This is the period that altering the traditions theoretically would have been the most plausible and undetectable, even before written copies of the finished gospel works began to circulate throughout the communities. Our concern is specifically how these traditions about the Jewish man named Jesus were preserved by the original apostles and eyewitnesses who taught these traditions orally, the communities that preserved these traditions (and that presumably told and retold these traditions orally), up to the time the gospel authors wrote down these circulating stories and oral traditions, which became the finished gospel works. We're dealing with what transpired between the time frame of Jesus' ministry -- 30-36 CE -- up to the time the stories and traditions of Jesus were presumably written -- 70-100 CE (assuming a post-70 gospel date in this case).        

Chaos theory

Chaos theory is important to form and redaction theory. The idea is that there was no early church leadership in the first century, or it was very minuscule relative to the spread of Christianity, much like it had become in the second century, and the early stories and traditions that preceded the gospels, circulating from the first eyewitnesses, flowed through a fluid and haphazard mishmash of scattered and independent communities.

From this, it would be very easy to suppose a scenario where the traditions would have become radically twisted and altered with exaggerated rumors and evolving legend, then further reshaped as the traditions were told and retold however the particular community saw fit in order to meet the needs of that community before they even found their way into written texts, then presumably redacted even more as they were transmitted to written texts by the gospel authors themselves. Such a scenario would go something like this: the traditions about Jesus start off as stories and rumors about his legacy; the stories and rumors grow and spread throughout pockets of isolated communities, perhaps even a mixture of Jewish and Gentile; religious doctrine and theology begin to form and shape around the stories and rumors that become much more complex legend; during this stage, pre-gosepl written sources appear; Mark comes along 30 years later and gathers all this tradition (both oral and written) and transmits it to his gospel, editing and embellishing with his own fictional spin; then comes Matthew and Luke who use Mark's work, other written and oral traditions as side dishes and edit the accounts with their own embellishments as they transmit it to their gospels; followed by John's gospel, the pinnacle and climax of advanced doctrine and theology.

However, this is just not very historically plausible when we look at the facts, thus form and redaction criticism not only uses unproven theories with no physical evidence, but is solely based on conjecture about the historical environment that is simply not true. The conclusion, based on the evidence, is that there were strict controls enforced by the earliest church, the Jewish apostles and eyewitnesses, up to about the turn of the first century.

For now, I'll overlook my discussion in another article about the proficiency of oral systems and its presumable control of the traditions that were followed by these ancient Near East communities.[3] The history of written Christian material is also solid evidence of this control process. Second century and later works, known as the apocryphal gospels -- i.e. gospel of Peter, gospel of Mary, gospel of Nicodemus, et al. -- written about Jesus or the characters surrounding Jesus not only DON'T resemble the first century canon gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- in the same manner that these four canon gospels similarly resemble each other, particularly in how they're structured, but the apocryphal works resemble each other even less. There are no two apocryphal works that are as similar to each other as the canon works.

This logically shows an earlier control over the traditions until about the end of the first century when the original apostolic faction which presumably administered this control began to fade and the church broke off into a myriad number of different sects and factions and wouldn't come under a similar authority again until many centuries later. In other words, the canon texts of the first century are identical to one another, reflect off each other and are similarly structured (hence the textual-dependency theories to explain this phenomenon) starkly more so than any of their later textual successors. This demonstrates a consistent pattern we would expect if these controls were in place during the time the earlier texts of the first century were conceived. This is not only why none of the later apocryphal works reflect off each other like the canon works, but why we have such an array of these apocryphal works that actually reflect more so off the first century canon works than they reflect off each other, because the earlier texts were written in a controlled environment, thus were considered the authoritative benchmarks to all these later works, as opposed to the later works written when these authoritative controls were gone and creative freedom in the church was much more fluid.

We also see instances of this illustrated in the New Testament works themselves. As was stated earlier, the Christian movement started at Jerusalem with apostolic leadership presiding as the chief authority in that location (Act 1:4, 6:7; Galatians 2:1-2). This is certainly what we would expect since this is where Jesus taught, was eventually apprehended, tried, crucified, buried and reportedly resurrected. This leadership at Jerusalem was often consulted when issues, including non-consequential ones rose up in the early church. For example...


  • When the Hellenized Christians felt they were being discriminated against by the Hebrew Christians with the daily distribution of food, these leaders were consulted about the matter (Acts 6:1-6).
  • When the Christian message began to expand into Samaria, there was once again interaction with these leaders at Jerusalem who sent Peter and John to oversee the matter (Acts 8:14).
  • When evangelism expanded into Antioch, we see the same protocols followed, with the Jerusalem administration sending out their representatives to investigate (Acts 11:19-22).
  • When the issue of circumcision came up, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas to consult the leaders back at Jerusalem about the matter (Acts 15:1-2; Galatians 2:1-2).
  • This is also where one of the most hotly debated issues raised in the early church was discussed -- Gentile inclusion and whether Gentiles should adhere to the Mosaic law (Acts 15:23-29).


Though some might regard Paul as somewhat of an evangelistic Maverick, he was always in communication with this authority at Jerusalem and well aware that he too was subject to this authority, knowing how important it was that his decisions, actions and message be aligned with this authority (see Romans 15:30-31; Galatians 2:1-2, also discussed here: The Christology of Paul, Paul vs. the gospels). In fact, not only was Paul assigned to deliver a decree throughout the churches directly by this administration (Acts 16:1-4), which also signifies controlled doctrine of outside churches from this authority within, but this was the administration that initially instructed Paul to evangelize to the Gentiles at Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:19-23; Galatians 7:9). James D. G. Dunn states of the early first century church...


"Nor should we forget the continuing role of eyewitness tridents, of those recognized from the first as apostles or otherwise authoritative bearers of the Jesus tradition. Such indications as there are from the pre-Pauline and early Pauline period suggest already fairly excessive outreach by such figures, both establishing and linking new churches, and a general concern to ensure that a foundation of authoritative tradition was well laid in each case. In focusing particular attention on the communal character of the early traditioning process we should not discount the more traditional emphasis on the individual figure of authority respected for his or her own association with Jesus during the days of his mission."[4]  

Richard Bauckham states...

"In view of all this evidence that the early Christian movement was a network of communities in constant communication with each other, by messengers, letters, and movements of leaders and teachers -- moreover, a network around which Christian literature circulated easily, quickly, and widely -- surely the idea of writing a Gospel purely for the members of the writer’s own church or even for a few neighboring churches is unlikely to have occurred to anyone."[5]

Richard Valantasis also adds…

"The Christian network was indeed a well-connected one. Throughout his letters, Paul acknowledges that emissaries are sent from community to community to carry the messages from Paul. In one letter Paul hears about a conflict through a member of Chloe’s household (1 Corinthians 1:11) and in another Paul praises the Thessalonians for their faithfulness on the basis of verbal reports (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10). Although an itinerant leader, Paul seems to know everything about the communities that he founded and that interested him. Paul’s itinerary did not in any way inhibit his ability to exercise his authority in local community."[6]

As I pointed out, the chaos theory is necessary to support the view that these traditions evolved from simple Jesus stories and rumors to complex Jesus legend and theology, otherwise, we would simply argue that these control factors would have prevented this or, at the very least, would have greatly frustrated it. As I have just shown, the theory of evolving tradition in a haphazard and fluid community simply has no means of factual or historical merit to back it other than pure conjecture.

Other extrinsic evidence is based on Paul's letters, spanning from about 40-60s CE, which were delivered to a variety of widespread and diverse churches throughout the Mediterranean. Paul's letters reflect the earliest Christian doctrine and are saturated with deep theology, yet remain static and consistent from letter to letter, showing no signs of doctrinal evolution or even controversy about the actual stories and traditions of Jesus' life and how they were being told and how they were being circulated. And, as I discussed in another article (The Christology of Paul: John and Paul), the Christology in Paul's letters show a stark relation to John's Christology, supposedly four or five decades apart.

Thus, we could just as easily shoot down the "open window" or the "haphazard and fluid" argument with solid proof that this central apostolic base, residing as watchdogs, would have been able to monitor what oral and written material circulated during that time (obviously a written manuscript about Jesus being passed around as an apostolic work or even an altered story or tradition, oral or written, would have generated some news among the leadership), and that they had such a firm grip on this process through frequent communication networks no such aberrant tradition was able to slip through the cracks, nor would there have been any community of Christians willing or dared to bypass this authority and attempt such creative license.

This in no way implies there were no beliefs or aberrant doctrine about Christ expressed apart from this initial authority that was rejected by this authority. In fact, we know from Acts and their very letters that this was not the case. However, to suggest the idea that the common Jesus-traditions we find in all four gospels, which are saturated with supernatural content, were being wildly embellished with legend and developing theology to the point it supports a supposed evolutionary path from simple to complex simply has no evidence of support, at least externally.


Criterion of dissimilarity

However, just because the movement may have been controlled by an apostolic authority doesn't mean this authority itself wasn't moved by its own prerogative to shape the traditions for their own self-interests or the interest of the church they themselves catered to. Once again, we're talking about Jews here who were overseeing these traditions and how they were being relayed to outsiders. However, putting this aside, and putting aside chaos theory, how does the theory of form and criticism stack up against just sheer logic alone?

Since at least 70% of the gospels contain something supernatural (miracles, claims of deity, divine intervention, implied supernaturalism and theology in the dialogue, etc.), the secular scholar must analyze the stories from a purely materialistic and naturalistic point of view. Thus, the inevitable conclusion is that the theories of form and redaction criticism must be true, hence explains this natural evolution of legend about the Jesus-traditions. The traditions started as simple stories and rumors about a historical charismatic Jew named Jesus, which evolved into fantastic legend and theology about this charismatic Jew named Jesus -- a process that was ongoing from oral to written tradition. Even though we examined some of facts that make the environment needed to support this theory improbable, well put that aside for now and ask the question: is there actual proof that the early Judeo-Christians had these carefree embellishment habits, or instead is this view perhaps just assumption based on the presupposition that form and redaction criticism theory is true. Is the argument of form and redaction criticism begging the question and just circular reasoning; a case where presupposition of theory A -- the stories evolved -- presupposes theory B -- they evolved to serve specific reasons, particularly evangelistic ones, and vice versa? Unfortunately there is no sure way to prove how the gospels developed outside of this circular methodology when it's based on hypotheticals.

However, there is a methodology to actually support the genuineness of the traditions outside of this methodology, regardless of whether the unproven theories (form, redaction, textual-dependency, et al.) are in fact true or not. It's quite simple and ironically the same methodology that the Jesus Seminar follows.[8] If we can find a pattern where the traditions show phrases, situations and events that hurt, conflict, would have created unnecessary confusion, or was counterproductive to their evangelism, their theology or just their best interest in making the Jesus traditions more appealing to the masses, and this pattern is consistent in all four, then the traditions must be given the benefit of the doubt, and this methodology is especially effective with religious material.

Jesus Seminar not only naturally stakes most of their views and analysis on the presupposition that the criticism theories are true, but definitively throws out any instances of the supernatural (miracles, claims of deity, divine intervention, supernatural dialogue, implied theology, etc.), which makes up at least 70% of the gospels from cover to cover, and insists that this 70% evolved as the Jesus-traditions were told over a period of at least 30 years. However, even the Seminar believes that there are valid arguments for authentic historical accounts about Jesus, and they use a method known as the criterion of dissimilarity. They argue that there are indeed minute remnants of the "real" or historical Jesus still buried within the legend that overlays it and that doesn't contain anything supernatural. Most of these remnants are but buried lines of dialogue or situations here and there that either hurt, conflict, would have created unnecessary confusion, or was counterproductive to their evangelism and theology, therefore most likely authentic. For example:


  • The incident Mark (6:5) and Matthew (13:58) record where Jesus was strangely negated from performing any miracles by outside influences is often treated as authentic since it leaves to question Jesus' divine omnipotency.
  • Mark (5:25-34) and Luke (8:43-48) record that Jesus didn't know it was a woman who secretly touched his garment that induced her healing, which leaves his omniscience in question, and to add insult to injury, the works record the disciples reprimanding Jesus for his, what they considered, nonsensical remark.
  • Mark (13:32) and Matthew (24:36) record Jesus admitting that he doesn't know when his second coming will be.
  • In Matthew (16:13-15), Mark (8:27-29) and Luke (9:18-20) Jesus doesn't know what his reputation is among the populace in Judea or even his own following and must ask them to share their views.
  • In Mark (10:18), Matthew (19:16-17) and Luke (18:18-19) Jesus seems to reprimand a man who calls him "good teacher," and points out that no one is good but God himself, giving the impression that Jesus himself was either not good or he was not God.
  • In Mark (15:2), Matthew (27:11) and Luke (23:3) Jesus gives an unconfirmed reply when asked by Pilate, his condemner, whether he is the Messiah or not.
  • In Matthew (12:31-32) and Luke (12:10) Jesus states that blasphemy directed at him is a forgivable sin, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable, giving the implication that the Holy Spirit has more divine precedence over Jesus...


... and on and on. However, I'm going to flesh this out and give it much more in-depth analysis.

Form/redaction criticism justification?

The first part of the criterion of dissimilarity argument is a sub-criterion I personally categorize as the argument from misrepresentation. This is by far the strongest argument not just against the evolution and development theory of early Jesus-tradition but intentional redaction and embellishment of the tradition, and this directly correlates to the whole driving force behind form and redaction criticism. Remember, form and redaction criticism theory proposes that the traditions started out primitive and simple about a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth and modified (drastically so, if we are to assume the supernatural content found in the traditions, which make up at least 70% of the tradition, was embellished) via oral and written tradition as the church gradually progressed and developed over time into a more and more complex religious system. In other words, the theory suggests that instead of the church evolving around the historical traditions of Jesus, the traditions evolved and were reshaped around the church and how it developed.

This becomes difficult to support, however, not just based on what I already covered in this article about such tradition was treated, but when analyzing some of the key issues and controversies that occurred within the early church movement that we see expressed in the epistles (dating anywhere from 40-100 CE in some cases). The issues and controversies described in the epistles are arguably the earliest issues that were addressed and debated by Judeo-Christians since it is believed that most of these written letters came earlier than the gospels. However, strangely, the content in the gospels completely avoid addressing any of these pertinent issues from the earlier letters, such as:

The last five issues became so heated that it actually created friction between Paul and some of the Judeo-Christians that one could even interpret as his rivals (see Galatians 2:1-5), including a rift between Peter (discussed here: The Christology of Paul, Paul vs. the gospels). Though the Glossolalia is mentioned by Jesus in Mark (16:17), it is located within the verses that are considered spurious (added by a forger). If we assume the Jesus-traditions (gospel stories) were heavily redacted and embellished, we can imagine two primary reasons as a driving force behind this: to affirm the divine theology surrounding Jesus by illustrating his amazing supernatural feats, and to establish sound church doctrine (or doctrine that was controversial at the time) by his authority in his sayings. To simplify this, say Joe wrote a work about a religious figure that had founded a church that was already established 30 years up to the time Joe decided to write the work. There had been much controversy and issues in the church between its adherents long after the founder had died during that 30 year period. Once the story is finished, we might assume Joe did a lot of embellishing because of the supernatural elements contained in the story, so we might also expect that Joe would have picked a handful of the most pertinent controversies in the church and used the founder to address these issues in order to use the authority of the founder to resolve them once and for all. 

This would have been an inevitable urge with a work we assume had vast elements of fiction, particularly in the case of the Jesus-traditions where it is assumed that 70% of the supernatural elements in the story are a result of radical embellishment within just a generation. After all, since we believe Joe is embellishing details and events, why not also embellish what the founder said to his advantage? Yet oddly enough, none of the pertinent issues and controversies that had occurred in the church during that 30 year period is addressed by the founder. This would strongly suggest against such accusations of redaction and establishment in spite of the supernatural elements since it would have been a natural urge for Joe to redact this work with these issues in mind. Instead, it suggests Joe was intent on sticking to the actual history of the founder and what the founder actually said and taught, and because these issues in the church came subsequent to the founder, the founder obviously didn't address such issues, nor did Joe use the founder to address these issues in a fictional way.

The argument that the gospel authors didn't know about these issues is impossible, simply because of what we established earlier about the communication and control factors that existed within the early Judeo-Christian movement. We also know that the author of Luke was in fact privy to these issues since he illustrated a number of them in his second work Acts. Paul, of whom most of these issues are also addressed from his letters, was still very connected to the initial disciples and the main churches at Jerusalem, Rome and all the other significant churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean, thus he was obviously describing issues that would have been common church issues at that time, issues that certainly the other gospels writers would have been privy to aside from Luke.

Again, Luke illustrated in his second work Acts that such debates in the early church occurred merely as a narrative spectator, yet offered very little convincing resolution. For example, Luke records a vision Peter has in regards to Gentile inclusion (Acts 10:9-48), and even though Peter was quite the authority on the matter, how much more would an authoritative resolution been to the problem if it was addressed in his first work by using Jesus to address it himself, particularly specific issues that were at the heart of the matter like circumcision and whether Gentiles should adhere to the Mosaic law. Thus, if we assume Luke and the gospel writers were embellishing the stories, why they didn't use Jesus to address these issues remains a total mystery.

It should also be pointed out here that Luke was obviously a great admirer of Paul, evident by how he portrays Paul in his second work (Acts). Therefore, in the context of redaction and embellishment, we might also expect the Jesus in Luke's gospel to reflect some of the teachings of Paul, but this is not all the case. In fact, there have been no shortage of critics that point out what they perceive as vast differences between the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and the teachings of Paul in his letters in order to support a theory of how the doctrine of the Christian movement vastly evolved from the time of Jesus to the time of Paul. Take Joe as our example again. Say Joe was a great admirer of Steve, a leader within the church, who was in the middle of many of the controversies in the church. We would expect the teachings of the founder in Joe's work to reflect the teachings of Steve if Joe was redacting and embellishing the work.  

Why didn't the gospel writers or even the church communities that told and retold these traditions orally resolve some of these issues in their favor by putting the solution to these issues on the lips of the Lord himself? After all, aren't they embellishing these stories about Jesus? Aren't these stories evolving, developing, being shaped and reshaped from the time they were told orally to the time the gospel writers transmitted them to text? Jesus said nothing, not so much as a word about the Glossolalia, communion etiquette, Gentile inclusion, circumcision, the function of prophets, church administration, the restoration of Israel, the application of faith versus the Mosaic law. Not only do the gospels not address these issues, but they in fact focus on primitive issues rather ad nauseam that would have presumably preceded the issues that came after Jesus; the ones listed above. The gospel of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John illustrate numerous questions, discourses, and debates between Jesus and the religious leaders resolving contentions and issues specifically related to Judaism (ritual hand washing, the Sabbath, divorce as it applies to the Mosaic law, intricacies of Jewish scripture and how it applies to Messiah, etc.), customs, practices, laws and controversies that appear to have little significance with what we find in the letters that were written to Greek audiences.

In fact, the gospels at times seem to contradict some of the issues that are listed above, hence would have caused complications to evangelism. Just one example would be the issue of Gentile converts. Gentiles were increasing if not the predominant Christian audience during the time the gospels were written. Though the kingdom of God is mentioned a couple of times in the gospels as something that would eventually be available to "all nations" (yet even with these somewhat unspecific passages it could have easily implied the tribes of Israel that were scattered throughout the Empire instead), it is treated in the gospels as being exclusively to the Jews in the present. Any direct issue of Gentile inclusion is completely ignored in the gospels. On the few occasions Gentiles interact with Jesus and his followers, they are treated as outsiders. Though it is true that Jesus commends the Roman centurion for his extraordinary faith, this is an exception. Most of the time when Gentiles are directly referenced by Jesus, it's done in a disparaging light (examples: Mark 7:25-30; Matthew 6:7, 10:5-7; John 4:22).

There is a stark contradiction here. How do we explain this in the context of form and redaction criticism, when the traditions were supposedly developing, being reshaped and embellished within the church as these issues and controversies were occurring in the church, yet somehow the traditions are totally isolated from these issues and controversies? We have two choices:


  1. The gospels were written before these issues arose in the church, which would suggest an extremely primitive date (between 33-45 CE), well within 1-10 years of the recorded event.
  2. The traditions were so rigidly controlled (this control we already established as per what I discussed earlier), that the original and authentic traditions of Jesus that were taught from the very start stayed true and consistent as they were transmitted from oral to written content (as per Luke 1:1-2).


If the latter is true, this demonstrates that the conveyors of both oral and written tradition had no desire to use Jesus to resolve church issues he never actually addressed since these issues came subsequent to his death and resurrection, which obviously works against the suggestion of redaction and embellishment. The epistles reflect important political and theological factors of the early Christian movement in and around Judea and the Mediterranean in its earliest stages. The absence of these issues in the gospels renders the theory of form and redaction criticism impotent because, under those presuppositions, we would expect to find the gospels paralleling and reflecting at least some of the religious controversies that were occurring during that times.

This is much more than an argument from silence because addressing issues of the church would have been the most irresistible method utilized by a religious community of redactors and embellishers shaping and reshaping the Jesus-traditions that were occurring at the same time these issues and controversies were taking place, thus renders the form and redaction criticism theories void of any meaningful credibility, historical merit, or even literary logic.

The political Jewish king without a political Jewish empire

If a staunch conservative, running for US president, gave a political speech where he confessed he had engaged in a homosexual act with a very famous celebrity, and admitted this as part of a speech he was giving specifically to prove why he's a better candidate than his running mate, even if the celebrity emphatically denied it, we would not assume the conservative politician made up the story and would likely give him the benefit of the doubt since the account works totally against his political agenda. This is the next faze of the criterion of dissimilarity I briefly touched on that is called the criterion of embarrassment, which is not as potent against redaction criticism but much more cumulative, which will require a three part series to explore it fully. In a culture that was oppressed by the iron grip of Roman rule and its client king Herod, expectations of a political messianic superhero who would rid them of these despotic and foreign elements and establish Israel's preeminence was an obsession with the Jews during this period, especially when this personality was believed to have been foretold in Jewish scripture (Old Testament) hundreds of years prior. This was discussed in depth in another article (here: The Messianic Matrix, The first century Judean Messiah), so I won't elaborate. We not only see this messianic anticipation clearly reflected throughout the gospels in various subtle and not so subtle ways with the interactions of the general public to Jesus, including from the beliefs and views of his own followers prior to his crucifixion, but from extrabiblical Jewish sources (i.e., Qumran scrolls, pre-Christian apocryphal texts, Talmud, etc.), most of which predate the gospels.

All these sources echo a consistent messianic expectation that was prominent among Jews of this era. In short, the Judean citizens who accepted Jesus and believed he was this "promised one" were not expecting Jesus to die via Roman crucifixion at the hands of the very enemies he was expected to defeat. Obviously, this expectation didn't occur. Jesus didn't physically conquer Rome or rule as Israel's political king, and a result, we would expect that some serious and radical alteration of prior messianic hopes, expectations and viewpoints would have occurred among his followers post-crucifixion, and we should indeed see this reflected in the traditions had they been freely embellishing and redacting the traditions about Jesus after he was killed this way. However, these alternations are not at all present. They kept promoting Jesus even after his crucifixion as the same Messiah they were expecting previously by equating his deeds and actions as fulfillments of the same Old Testament scripture that they believed foretold this future hero; some of the same scripture Jewish rabbis and philosophers used to formulate this political messianic expectation.

Here are examples of these scriptural comparisons (note that the OT prophecy is on the top of the page, and the referenced fulfillment in Jesus declared by the writers of the NT is just underneath):  Isaiah 9:1-7 > Matthew 4:13-16; Psalm 110:1-14 > Mark 12:35-37; Zechariah 9:9-17 > John 12:14-15; Psalm 2:7-12 > Acts 13:32-33). Notice how each one of these OT prophecies they reference and that were foretold decades, in some cases centuries before Jesus, prophecies they proudly associated as fulfillments in Jesus, clearly express political relief and victory for both this messianic hero and Israel that he was supposed to have represented. You would think it wise to have kept these passages out of the Jesus-traditions, or at least offered some apologetic, especially if the gospels were written post-70 at the time most of these prophecies grossly contradicted the 70 CE war, which marked a decisive and bitter defeat of the Jewish people at the hands of the Roman regime.

The state of Israel at the time would have raised credibility issues with anyone merely checking the references from the OT scriptures themselves and making the comparisons of those passages in full. There are many examples of these OT passages that were touted as fulfillments in Jesus aside from the examples I just showed. There are also other diverse examples where the NT writers underscored a triumph of the Jewish people over their oppressors as a result of Jesus' coming, such as:


Luke 1:32-35 "'He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin? 'The angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God."


The passage obviously proclaims a divine King, specifically identified as a political king of the restored nation of Israel ("house of Jacob"), just the way the Jews were anticipating during that time before the war. Belief in his resurrection would have indeed offered vindication of his divine nature and confirmed Luke's declaration that he was the "Son of God of the Most High," but the state of Israel, consisting of tribes that were scattered throughout the Empire prior to the war (much less after), starkly contradicted any expectation of a ruler that would bring order and restoration and "reign over the house of Jacob forever." Other examples of this include: Matthew 2:5-6, 12:18-20, 19:28; Luke 1:46-55, 1:68-79, 22:26-30; John 1:49-50, 12:12-13.

Interestingly enough, many of these passages are not found in Mark, which leads us to suppose -- in the context of textual-dependency (i.e. that Mark came first, followed by the others who used his work as a reference) -- that these were later developments in the traditions, making the theory of redaction, which heavily relies on textual-dependency, even more incongruous in this case. Moreover, there are many passages they touted as fulfillments in Jesus that didn't present these issues, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22; two of the most heavily proclaimed messianic passages we find cited throughout the New Testament about the redemptive mission of Christ, and passages that made no reference to a political hero or a victorious Israel (discussed here: The Messianic Matrix). So, there were obviously OT scriptures they could have settled for as substitutes for the more problematic ones. Once again, we are left with two choices:


  1. The gospels were written before Jerusalem was sieged and utterly destroyed by Roman legions in 70 CE, which contradicted Israel's political triumph that was foretold in those passages (quite the problem for most form criticism proponents who are typically very loyal to a post-70 date of the gospels, since they need enough feasible time for the supposed theological development and evolution of the Jesus-traditions to have taken place).
  2. The Jesus-traditions that the initial Jewish eyewitnesses handed down were kept strictly unchanged and in its original form, even though it contained elements that were not only impractical at the time, but in most cases implied political contradiction, thus potential complications to the credibility of Jesus as Messiah.


Both of these options actually contradict the very idea that the traditions were being developed and reshaped as time passed and the church evolved, the latter much more so. In the context of everything discussed in this article, the latter is the more likely option.


Click here for Part II, or go home.


Source References

1. Paul D. Wegner, A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, p.207; 2006.

2. Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, chap.13 (

3. The article: The Q Conundrum, Problem #6. The "telephone game" analogy, as well as form criticism argued by Rudolf Bultmann in the early 20th century, which supported the idea that the oral traditions went through stages or layers of redaction and evolution even before they made it onto written texts, has since been debunked by more recent scholars like Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn, who argue formal controlled oral tradition. Bailey argues that oral tradition in this region, even in some parts to this day, was kept by the elders of the church in each community (examples Mark 7:3-5; Acts 11:30, 14:23) when the apostles, who were the controllers of the traditions, weren't around. Though in some cases, the apostles were the elders (1 Peter 5:1). No one could recite the traditions other than whom the elders deemed qualified. There was some flexibility in how the traditions were told, but there was no inventing or "adding layers." The sayings, poems, parables, etc., however, were more rigidly kept, which explains the similarities with most of the duplicated traditions in the gospels. Books to check out:

         James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003.

         Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006.

         Kenneth Bailey's thesis can be read online: Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels (

4. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p.242-243; 2003.

5. Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for all Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, p.44; 1998.

6. Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian Life in History and Practice, p.235; 2009.

7. Bauckham, ibid., pp.36-44.

    Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 7:9, chap. 11, chap. 13-15, chap. 21-22, chap. 32:1 chap. 35; book 4, chap. 1, chap. 6.

    Jerome, Illustrious men, chap. 1, 15, 16 (

    Also see History of Christianity: Ecclesiastical Structure.

8. See Jesus Seminar.