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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Band of Brothers: Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts

Richard Winters
I have lately been reading (or listening to) two books that, like chocolate and strawberries, while very different, go well together. 

The first is Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, by Stephen Ambrose.  This well-told and moving story centers on several members of a company that paratrooped into Normandy and took out German guns firing on Utah Beach, fought brutal warfare in the frozen trenches of Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge, and waltzed into Hitler's mountain redoubt, sipping on Himler's massive stash of alcohol, and driving Hitler's staff cars, through Bavaria, sometimes perhaps a bit drunkenly, after peace broke out. 
Ambrose is a wonderful historian, and the book is lively, humane, and full of surprises.  The main hero of the book is Richard Winter, ultimately Major Winter, a brilliant battlefield officer, a teatotaller who lets his men drink within reason, a gentle warrior who kills maybe twenty Germans in battle with the weapons in his own hands, but ensured that those who surrendered lived, and refused to shoot an injured Canadian goose. 

The second book is Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Bauckham is professor emeritus at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a fellow of the British Academy.  He's not as colorful a writer as  Ambrose, or even N.T. Wright, but in a slow and steady way, with some repetition, makes a strong, informed case that the four stories of Jesus' "band of brothers" that we call the gospels, are based on eyewitness accounts. 


What struck me is that the sort of thing Bauckham is describing, Ambrose is actually doing.  Ambrose is, in fact, writing something very like a "Gospel," in much the way Bauckham thinks the actual gospels were written. 

The parallels are remarkably close:

* In both cases, the chief characters are a group of young men.  (Scholars often forget that the apostles would have almost all been very young, as is always the case with such wandering bands.)

* Both groups travel across the countryside and have adventures.  Traveling, they would naturally remember new places well -- that is my experience, anyway. 

* This itineration lasts about three years for both the Jews and the Americans.

* While many of the men in both bands enjoy successful careers later on, this period of travel under a single, respected leader is the most intense period of their lives for many, perhaps most, and close bonds with fellows, despite occasional brawling, are forged. 

* The strength of friendship and experience also mean they remember those periods of their lives intensely. 

* An element of danger also casts an unforgetable aura on the "ministry" of those years.

* Neither group is on a picnic: they have higher ideals and strategic goals for which they are striving.  They see themselves as part of larger movements. 

* Both are indoctrinated in those ideals, putting "training" into practical action along the way.   

* Both Mark and Luke, on the one hand, and Dr. Ambrose, on the other, rely on a combination of documents and oral testimony to write their "gospels." 

* Ambrose apparently conducted interviews with surviving soldiers in the early 1990s.  This would correspond to about 80-82 AD, about when Luke and Matthew wrote their Gospels, and 10-20 years after the Gospel of Mark was probably written. 

* Both groups of men were young during the period recounted.  The number of total disciples of Jesus was probably similar to the number of members of E Company who fought and were not immediately killed. 

* Both sets of disciples were scattered after these few brief years of "ministry."  Christians spread to small communities around the Mediterranean world.  Ex-GIs from Winter's band scattered across the United States, building dams in the North Cascades, selling farm products in New Jersey, doing business in Connecticut, running a prison camp in Germany, fishing for sharks in California. 

It seems to me that the parallels show how credible the traditional understanding of the gospels remains.  In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I describe 50 characteristics of the gospels, most of which underline and support the historicity of the gospels.  The "Band of Brothers" analogy helps show how it came to be that such strong accounts of Jesus' ministry came to be written.

Of course, no analogy is perfect.  I can think of at least three differences between these two stories, that critics might point to as undermining the analogy. 

Possible Objections

* "Dr. Ambrose was a better historian than St. Mark."  No doubt he was.  He certainly had more polish and literary flare.  He probably didn't spend as much time with his primary sources, though.  All in all, the two men seem to be doing similar things, and the end result in both cases is a realistic mix of action, dialogue, and scene, which gives every sign of deriving from events that actually happened to real people. 

* "Life expectancy was so much shorter in the ancient world, than in modern America!  American GIs enjoyed good health and plenty of food, and naturally lived longer to tell their stories."   
This surely makes some difference.  Epidemic diseases like small pox often ravaged ancient cities, and some of Jesus' followers could be expected to succumb to them.  Christians were also often persecuted, and sometimes martyred. From ages 20 to 60, probably half or more of adults would succomb to some disease or other misfortune, in the ancient world. 

But short life expectancy in the ancient world was inflated by an extremely high infant mortality rate.  A large percentage of those who survived the diseases of childhood, could be expected to live reasonably long lives.  If they didn't, people wouldn't have survived long enough to reproduce -- yet there was natural increase in the population, which is why Romans were able to engage in so many wars.  In fact, many famous ancient scientists lived past 70, even into their 80s.  So there is nothing at all improbable in the claim that the likes of John Mark found many witnesses still alive, probably still just in their 60s, perhaps even 50s in some cases, when he wrote. 

In fact, some men of E Company got together as late as 2009.  That would correspond to almost 100 AD, later even than when the Gospel of John was probably composed.  As recently as last Sunday, I had a chat with a pastor who had been in Patton's army, who told me a story about guarding Hungarian prisoners who had worked in America before the war.  He seems in fairly good health, and to remember events from the war well.  That puts all the talk about "generations" and "traditions" for gospels that were written about 70 or 80 AD, in a different light! 

* "They didn't have 737s in St. Mark's day.  The early Christians were too scattered, for the authors of the gospels to interview them!" 

People in the Roman world often traveled quite a bit.  Paul's travels are well-known.  What is clear from all accounts of early Christianity, is that the Church in particular cities was not isolated, but in frequent contact with its fellow churches.  Much of the population of Palestine was scattered in 70 AD, after all.  As Stark shows, a network of Jews was spread throughout most of the Roman Empire, and the Church seemed to follow that network. 

Furthermore, the early church was a tight-knit sub-community.  Distusted by Jewish leaders, misunderstood by Greeks, and persecuted by Romans, Christians were forced to band together, which they were eager to do, anyway.   

It should have been easy, therefore, for someone like Mark to make contacts with surviving eyewitnesses, who would have been well-known. and no doubt eager to reminiscence.  Because testimony was so highly valued in the early church, everyone would have known whom to ask, for details -- as Bauckham argues, Mark did know, and did ask.

Read Band of Brothers, and the gospels.  With all their cultural, linguistic and technological differences, see if you don't recognize the similarities.

13 comments:

L.M. Muffett said...

"Faith: No one word personifies the absolute worst and most wicked policies of religion better than that. Faith is mind-rot -- it's a poison that destroys critical thinking, undermines evidence, and leads people into lives dedicated to absurdity. It's a parasite that's regarded as a virtue. I speak as a representative of the scientific faction of atheism here -- it's one thing we simply cannot compromise on. Faith is wrong, and at the same time faith is a central tenet of just about every religion on the planet. We can't ignore that -- that's the thing we are interested in fighting."--P.Z. Myers

David B Marshall said...

What PZ Myers is fighting is his own timidity and ignorance -- but not very hard. Quoting him as an expert witness on religion, or reality generally, is like quoting Porky Pig on eloquence, or Mr. Magoo on beauty.

Nor does this comment have anything to do with the blog. Do try to say something sensible, if you comment again.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Mr./Ms. Muffett but I do know he/she lives by faith--every time one sits on a chair, trusting it won't collapse, drives a car, trusting it won't explode, makes plans for tomorrow, trusting one will still be alive, etc., etc. Faith is no problem inherently, what is a problem is unfounded faith. David gives reasons for why Christian faith is well founded faith.

David B Marshall said...

So Little Miss (LM) Muffett, sat on her tuffet -- by faith?

I love it when fairytales come true. :- )

Gary said...

Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

Moss Grad said...

Gary's statement on what scholars believe about the gospel authorship is misleading.

As far as Mark and Luke/ACTS goes, the majority of scholars who are experts in these gospels regardless of beliefs hold to the traditional authorship. The only question with Mark is whether it was penned before or after Peter died.

As far as John is concerned, while who exactly wrote it is uncertain, the vast majority hold that it was an eyewitness.

Matthew is the most controversial, probably just under 50% hold to the traditional authorship of that gospel but that number is climbing!

Gary said...

"As far as Mark and Luke/ACTS goes, the majority of scholars who are experts in these gospels regardless of beliefs hold to the traditional authorship."

What criteria are you using to determine who qualifies as "scholars who are experts in these gospels"? So just being a New Testament scholar is not good enough? One must specialize in a particular Gospel to have any authority on the authorship of the Gospels???

Give me a break.

I encourage everyone reading this post to "google" the following: "Do the majority of New Testament scholars believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses?"

I believe that what you will find is that the majority of NT scholars do NOT believe that the traditional authors wrote the Gospels, and even more, they do not believe that the Gospels were written by ANY eyewitness.

David B Marshall said...

Gary gets a lot wrong here:

"Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true."

Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses made the case for eyewitness involvement which has made a deep impression on many leading scholars. But of course I didn't claim that all the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

"The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed."

I don't recall anyone using so extreme a word as "impossible."

"But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD."

And some put it considerably earlier.

"Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death."

So what? I remember events four decades ago. People I know well remember events more than seven decades ago. The record is probably 10+ decades ago.

"During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem."

Yes. But Christian apostles had already scattered. And of course 50+ year old men and women seldom take part in battles.

"How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD?"

Are you kidding? Are you still in your teens, that you think older people don't or didn't exist?

"How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?"

Read Bauckham. Or my Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.

"If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?"

Questions answered in Jesus is No Myth. A model that is completely destroyed there.

Gary said...

You are missing the point, friend. I never said that I know as a fact there was no one alive in 70 CE who had been alive in 33 CE. It is very likely that there were some people still alive in 70 CE who were alive in 33 CE.

What I said was: can anyone know for sure that any EYEWITNESS to the execution of Jesus and the alleged events shortly after his death were still alive in 70 CE?

No. You can't.

Gary said...

I read Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

His evidence that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark is very tenuous: the word of Papias who admits he never met even ONE of the disciples of Jesus and hidden literary clues in the Gospel. His "evidence" is no more than conjecture and hearsay.

Bauckham admits that the Apostle Matthew did NOT write the Gospel of Matthew, and, Bauckham denies that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John. Bauckham believes that another John, someone who had once served as the chief priest in Jerusalem (????), wrote the Gospel of John. His evidence is very far-fetched.

I would bet that most conservative Christians sitting in the pews would not be happy to hear that the leading conservative NT scholar of our day rejects the traditional authorship of the only two books traditional Christianity claims were written by Apostles and actual eyewitnesses!

David B Marshall said...

Yes. If 500 people witnessed the resurrected Jesus, as Paul said, there is no reason to doubt his claim that most were still alive when he wrote. That is probable. After 40 years, with most of Jesus' followers being younger than him (as is normal in such bands, you don't get many 70 year olds scurrying around the countryside after a 30 year old preacher), likely perhaps 1/3 of Jesus young followers (who were as young as 12, at least) would still be alive. Even if only 1/4, that would mean 125 + eyewitnesses (that was just in one place), and a few of the apostles. At that point, it would make sense for them to start recording.

It would be a miracle if they had all died by that time. Are you claiming that sort of miracle?

I agree that Papias is less than overwhelming evidence, but I think it is more than "hearsay." And I disagree that that is all Bauckham offered. Bauckham's evidence about exactly who wrote John is, I agree, not that strong, but that it was someone close to an eyewitness, as John himself says, I think is very strong. My guess is that it WAS the Apostle John.

But IMO, those are the weakest two points in Bauckham's argument. (And who anointed him "the leading conservative NT scholar of our day?) What you overlook is his archeological evidence, which completely destroys your (Ehrman's?) uber-skeptical notion of how the gospels came into being.

As for worrying about which John who followed Jesus wrote the gospel, no, I really don't think most Christians would be so horrified as you imagine, especially since you conveniently forget that Bauckham argues (well) that it was, in fact, an eyewitness.

Gary said...

I do not doubt that Paul sincerely believed that 500 people had seen the risen Jesus, but here are a couple questions for you:

1. Where did this event occur?
2. When did this event occur?
3. What EXACTLY did the 500 people claim they saw? Did they see a body or only a bright light? Did Jesus talk? Did he move? Did he sit down and eat with them? Or, did five hundred people "see" Jesus in a bright light on a hillside or in a cloud formation?

If all 500 of these people, at one time and place, saw a walking/talking Jesus, then I agree with you, at least a few of them were PROBABLY still alive in 70 CE and would count as witnesses to the bodily resurrection appearance of Jesus. But since Paul never claims that this group of people saw a walking/talking body, we should limit ourselves to witnesses who specifically claimed to see a body, such as the Eleven, Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb. Do we know for sure that even ONE of these people was still alive in 70 CE? Answer: No.

Gary said...

I think it is very strange that conservative Christians proclaim to be so confident about the traditional authorship (or even just the eyewitness authorship) of the Gospels when conservative/evangelical NT scholars can't even agree on the authorship of the only TWO Gospels alleged to have been written by eyewitnesses!

Bauckham believes that the Gospel of Matthew was written by multiple redactors of a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. Bauckham states that he believes that this author or authors even fabricated stories in their gospels, in particular, the calling of the tax collector Matthew. Bauckham believes that the author/s of Matthew "borrowed" the story of the calling of Levi in the Gospel of Mark into their story about the calling of Matthew. Bauckham does NOT believe that Matthew and Levi were the same person. My goodness! Even evangelical scholars admit that there are fabrications in the Bible! What ELSE is a fabrication, one must wonder?

Bauckham, along with a minority of conservative Christian NT scholars, believes that the Elder John of Ephesus, the former Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, was the Beloved Disciple and the author of the Gospel of John, NOT the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee.

Scholar NT Wright has said the following: "I do not know who wrote the Gospels and neither does anyone else!"

If conservative and moderate Christians can't even agree on this issue, how strong can the evidence be for the eyewitness authorship of these four books?