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We’re back for our eighth season of the podcast! In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman joins Pete and Jared to discuss the historical reliability of the Gospels, highlighting the roles of oral tradition, authorial bias, and contradictions within the texts. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What’s involved in the historical study of antiquity?
  • What are we talking about when we’re talking about the question of the Gospels and their reliability? 
  • Does having an eyewitness account guarantee accuracy?
  • Do we have literary evidence of Jesus from the same time frame which is outside of the Scriptures?
  • What examples from the ancient world do we have documenting other historical figures?
  • Is there such a thing as an unbiased source?
  • What do we mean when we ask whether the Gospels are reliable? Is that usually assumed to mean historically accurate?
  • What is orality?
  • What kind of assumptions are we prone to placing on the Gospels about their accuracy?
  • If we don’t have outside sources to compare the Gospels to, then what has led scholars to their conclusions about the historical reliability of the Gospel traditions from within the Gospels themselves?
  • How can we look at the Gospel contradictions as positive?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • If you’ve got two sources and one borrowed from the other, then you actually don’t have two sources. You’ve got one source. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • Archaeology can tell us a lot. The problem with artifacts is that they don’t interpret themselves, right? So it’s also interpretation not just if you have a writing, but also if you have some kind of material remain. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • Sometimes people say that there’s lots of references to Jesus outside the Christian sources, the Gospels, and it’s actually not true. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • There’s no such thing as an unbiased source. If somebody decides to write something about someone, they’re doing it for a reason. And if they’ve got a reason, they’ve got a bias. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • It’s not that there are such things as unbiased sources. It’s that you have to compare sources with one another and to try and figure out what the biases are so you can get beneath them. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • If you’ve got two sources that flat out contradict each other, they both can’t be historically accurate. Either one is accurate and the other’s not, or they’re both inaccurate—but they both can’t be accurate historically. — @BartEhrman @theb4np
  • You know, they’re called gospels. They’re not called histories. — @BartEhrman @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music plays] Before we get started in the first episode of Season 8 of The Bible for Normal People, we just wanted to mention one of our biggest accomplishments last year, which was the start of our online community, The Society of Normal People, which we lovingly refer to around the office as SONP. 

Pete: Yeah, and that’s where our listeners and community members engage with each other on topics like science and faith, deconstruction, theology, scripture, and a whole lot more. 

Jared: Yeah, and it’s where we host our classes, exclusive Q&As with us and our Nerds team, a monthly gathering, kind of like a life group, there’s one of those that is going on. And overall, it just helps to shape the future of our content, books, we love getting feedback from everyone.

Pete: For me, one of the real things that I love about SONP is it really, it embodies what Jared and I have always wanted to do, which is have community where people don’t feel alone and they talk about things and you know, topics of interest, and it’s a safe place for people to discuss things they can’t really talk about necessarily in other contexts.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely. You stole mine. I was going to talk about the emphasis on not being alone, because we hear from so many listeners over the years that, “Where can I talk about this kind of thing? There’s risk involved with talking about this with people I go to church with or with my family members, but I need a sounding board. I need to be able to kind of process these things out loud so I can figure out what I believe now.”

Pete: And we learn from each other too. That’s the thing too. There are a lot of smart people on SONP. A lot of experience, a lot of thinking, and it’s great. 

Jared: Becoming a member gets you ad-free podcast episodes, bonus material, all of our classes, which is a real important benefit, and a community to process your faith alongside.

Pete: And you can learn more and become a member for only $12 a month at 

Well, Jared, it’s our first episode of season eight of The Bible for Normal People. Eight seasons. 

Jared: It’s a third grader. 

Pete: Pretty much. 

Jared: We got a third grader on our hands. 

Pete: [Laughing] We’ve got a third grader! And a lot of people say, yeah, that’s basically what you guys have here is a third grade episode.

[Jared laughs]

You guys are illogical. Don’t make any sense. But hey, man. You start a podcast and go eight seasons, see how that goes. 

Jared: Right. We’ve gone the distance. 

Pete: We’ve gone to eight. Eight’s pretty good. 

Jared: Eight’s a good number too. I like eight. 

Pete: I hope we’re just getting started actually. 

Jared: I like the number eight. It’s even. Infinity when you turn it on its side.

Pete: It’s not biblical. Yeah, it is. Seven would be better. We should have stopped after seven. 

Jared: We should have stopped it. Well, now we have to go to 40. We missed seven. 

Pete: Or 400, which is the length, yeah, some, we’ll figure that out. Anyway, one year at a time, how about one episode at a time? What’s today’s episode?

Jared: Today’s episode we’re talking about the Gospels and Historical Reliability with Bart Ehrman. 

Pete: Yeah, and Bart is a James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, that’s at Chapel Hill, and an expert in New Testament. He’s very well known in the history of early Christianity. He’s written or edited like 30 books, six have been on the New York Times bestseller list. So this guy’s no slouch.

Jared: That’s, that’s really impressive. How many books have you had on the New York Times bestseller list?

Pete: Negative. There’s a list of people who will never get on that. And I’m on that list. So how does that sound? 

Jared: All right, let’s get to the episode. 

[Jaunty music plays over teaser clip of Bart speaking]

Bart: “If there are contradictions, that means that they cannot both be right historically, but the other virtue of the contradictions is they tell you that the author’s trying to emphasize something different than the source that he’s using. So, like, if Matthew changes Mark, that’s really valuable because it shows you what Matthew wants to say. And it means if you want to understand Matthew, you actually have to look at the contradictions because it shows you what his version of Jesus is.”

[Ad break]

Pete: Bart, welcome to the episode. Happy to have you here!

Bart: Yeah. Thanks for having me. 

Pete: Well, let’s talk about the reliability of the Gospels, but let’s, let’s take a step back first and talk about some preliminary things. Maybe the first thing is, you know, we’re dealing with a text, a series of texts that are old, a couple thousand years old, roughly.

And you know, the study of history is a complicated thing. So just maybe help us understand a little bit about the nature of the historical study of antiquity. 

Bart: Yeah, no, it’s the right place to start because I, I think a lot of people think that there’s this kind of common knowledge out there. You know, for historians who want to know about the past, and especially the ancient past, you’ve got to have sources that somehow or other go back to the time period, the written sources. For the ancient past, most of our information comes from literary sources. And so authors wrote things, and if they’re writing about somebody or something, uh, you know, you want to know about where they got their information from. Were they there to see these things happen? Or to see these people? Or were they basing their accounts on what they heard others say? And if it’s what others say, are these others actually there, or do they, are they hearing things from other people who heard it from other people who heard it from other people over the course of, say, 200 years, and they’re reporting it?

And so scholars have to look at, they only have sources, and they have to evaluate them and compare them to see if they’re consistent with each other. To see—if they are consistent with each other, is it possible that one borrowed from another? If you’ve got two sources and one borrowed from the other, then you actually don’t have two sources. You’ve got one source [chuckles].

And so what scholars do is they take their literary sources, and if there are any archaeological remains or anything like that, and they critically evaluate them to try and figure out how much they can be trusted. 

Pete: Yeah. I mean, archaeology plays a role in that ideally as well.

Bart: That’s right. I mean, you know, archaeology can tell us a lot. The problem with artifacts is that they don’t interpret themselves, right? So you’ve got to, you know, you also, it’s also interpretation, not just if you have a writing, you know, that you’re trying to interpret, but also if you have some kind of material remain, you still have to figure it out and, and archaeologists disagree about, you know, what this means or what that means.

Jared: So, can we maybe situate—when we ask the question “are the Gospels reliable?”, can you maybe situate the Gospels within that ancient context and those ancient collection of texts that we have, maybe related to Jesus, that you’re—again, you talked about, we have to compare them and we have to analyze them in comparison with each other. What are we talking about when we’re talking about the question of, of the Gospels and their reliability? 

Bart: Yeah, so to dovetail that with what we were just saying, I mean, what we would really like—if you’ve got a figure like Jesus, who’s obviously hugely important for, I mean, for the history of civilization, and you want to know what he really said and did and what really happened to him, what you would really like, you would prefer to have a lot of different sources that are independent of each other, that go near to the time when Jesus was, preferably eyewitness sources, that basically confirm what each other say without having, uh, borrowed from one another. And, uh, you know, they’re consistent with one another. That’s what you hope for, and when it comes to Jesus and the Gospels, you know, we’re actually in better shape for 99.99 percent of the population at the time, for whom we have, we have nothing. 

We’ve got four early sources that all happen to be in the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s usually thought by scholars that these sources were written starting about the year 70 with the Gospel of Mark, would be about 40 years after Jesus’ death in the year 30 or so. And so the other Gospels are later than that. So the Gospels are between 40 or 60 or 70 years after the events they’re narrating. They’re written in Greek. They’re not written in Jesus’ native language, which suggests that the authors were not Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus. They’re writing in a different language, they live in a different part of the world. And so right off the bat, that makes you, you know, it makes you wonder how accurate they are. It doesn’t make them inaccurate that they’re written decades later by people who weren’t there. But it starts to raise some questions that you have to consider historically.

Pete: I would imagine, too, that even if you had people who let’s say were eyewitnesses, uh, writing at the time, that in and of itself doesn’t guarantee accuracy.

Bart: That’s exactly right. And I think a lot of people miss that point, because a lot of times when people talk about the Gospels in particular, if they say, “Well, they’re based on eyewitnesses, therefore, they’re accurate,” that’s clearly, that therefore doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, we, the reason we have a judicial system is because you can’t just trust an eyewitness. [Laughs] You could just ask somebody what happened, you wouldn’t need a trial. And there’s been a lot of research, of course, on eyewitness testimony. Not just in biblical studies, but, I mean, in modern legal contexts, especially, it’s been shown quite convincingly that eyewitnesses are not necessarily accurate, and that often they’re extremely inaccurate. 

Pete: Before we move on to talk about the Gospels specifically, do we have literary evidence about Jesus from roughly the time of Jesus that’s outside of the Scriptures? 

Bart: Uh, no, [laughs] unfortunately. So what we have, I can tell you what we have very briefly, because sometimes people say that, you know, that there’s lots of references to Jesus outside the Christian sources, the Gospels, and it’s actually not true.

In the first century, so if we take, you know, suppose Jesus is, you know, just like the first century up to the year 100. Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman source, uh, that is not either Christian or Jewish. So there’s no pagan sources, no Roman, no Greek, no Syriac or anything, sources that even mention his name.

Uh, he’s not mentioned by a Roman source until about the year 112, by, uh, just an off the cuff comment by a governor in the Roman Empire. He’s mentioned in one Jewish source of the first century, Josephus, who is writing the book that mentions him in the year 93. And so it’s, uh, 63 years later and it doesn’t after his death.

And it doesn’t actually give us much information, but it’s a little, it’s a paragraph and it tells us a couple things that are similar to what we find in the gospels. So in terms of external sources, uh, that are not Christian, we just have Josephus for the first century. We do have other Christian sources, though, of course, besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but those would be sources that are also in the New Testament, including the Apostle Paul, who was writing before the Gospels.

Paul certainly knew about Jesus, because he writes about him, but he doesn’t tell us much about his life is the problem. He says hardly anything about what Jesus said and did during his ministry. He mainly talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

Jared: So, maybe can you compare? Because I think without other things to compare this to it’s hard to kind of understand when we’re talking about reliability. Do you have some of the other examples in the ancient world of other historical figures or other events, and how scholars would attest to their reliability, and how that compares to—the, because for me, it seems, yes, it would be great to have multiple sources that aren’t, uh, I guess, in some ways, aren’t biased toward the subject matter, right? Religious texts, they have an agenda.

I can just see that’s how people would think of it. It’s like, they have an agenda. But I wonder, were there a lot of texts that weren’t like that in the ancient world? It seems like that would be a pretty prominent reason you would write things down, is to have some sort of agenda or some interpretation of events. So I’m just trying to situate, how did the Gospels relate to maybe these other texts?

Bart: Yeah, no, it’s a very good point, and it’s something that I didn’t mention yet, but we really do have to consider is that when you, when you read an account, you have to look at the biases of the author and see, you know, how it might have affected how things are related.

In terms of other figures from the ancient world, we basically only, for the most part, we only know of very, very influential people from their time. And so, you know, Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and he’s extremely [laughs] well documented. We have so much information, including stuff that he himself wrote, uh, which we don’t have for Jesus. A lot of the stuff we have for him, uh, Caesar Augustus can be verified and, you know, you compare sources and so something like that, but it’s an unfair comparison, because the Roman emperor was the most powerful figure in the Western world, the wealthiest figure in the world, and Jesus was a lower class preacher from a kind of a rural outpost.

You actually wouldn’t expect anything about Jesus. But you get references, you get information about senators, for example. Or governors. Mainly political, but also religious figures, literary figures from the time. Every one of these sources, as you indicated, is biased. Because there’s no such thing as an unbiased source. If somebody decides to write something about someone, they’re doing it for a reason. And if they’ve got a reason, they’ve got a bias. And so it’s not that there are such things as unbiased sources. It’s that you have to compare sources with one another and to try and figure out what the biases are so you can get beneath them.

Pete: And that’s the heart of critical study. 

Bart: That’s what critical study does. Historians, you know, we use the term critical historians. Some people don’t think that’s a very nice thing to say that they’re so critical, but all it means is that that you don’t accept a source on face value, you have to examine it and compare it to other sources and see what the biases are and see, you know, what the likelihood that the source is getting things right and compare it to what other sources say about the same time period and that kind of thing. 

Jared: So that does I think lead us into the next conversation around historical reliability because I do think it’s an unfair comparison sometimes when our modern notion of historical reliability is compared with how the ancients would, ancient writers would have written and what they were writing for.

And so, to your point, in the ancient world, even maybe moreso than currently, people aren’t writing for, you know, historical accuracy. What do we mean when we say, are the Gospels reliable? Is that usually assumed to mean historically accurate? And then my next question would be, what does that mean then?

Bart: Yeah, right [chuckles]. Well, I think usually that’s what people mean by it. Are they reliable? Generally, if somebody asks that, they want to know if you’ve got in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals the daughter of Jairus and you have an account of it, did that really happen or not? And did it happen in the way it’s described or not? And people today would say it’s reliable if it’s what you could have, you could have gotten on your iPhone if you had your recorder on. You would have seen exactly what Mark says. I think in the modern world, that’s what we think of as reliability. 

That kind of understanding, of course, that makes common sense to us that that’s what we mean. That actually wasn’t the view of things before pretty much before the Enlightenment. The modern understanding of historical accuracy is related to things that were happening in the 18th and the 19th centuries in European intellectual circles. In the ancient world, of course when somebody is writing about a person they want to, they want to basically get it right. When you have people writing—so suppose you’ve got a biographer in the ancient world. We have several that we know really quite well, like Plutarch as a Greek philosopher in the second century who wrote biographies, or Suetonius in the second century wrote biographies of Roman emperors. Plutarch’s quite explicit that his goal, he’s trying to show how the person sets an example morally for how we ought to live. And he’s interested in that rather than like names and dates. And, you know, he gives names and dates, but, but that’s not really what he wants to—he wants to show that the character of this person is something that should be emulated, or the character of the person is something that you should avoid. And so it’s really more of like, I have a character analysis, than it is accuracy in the sense that we ourselves think about today.

Pete: So with, you mentioned the Enlightenment, there’s a different kind of historical consciousness that we have as a result of that influence that simply wasn’t on the radar of ancient writers.

Bart: Yeah, I think the problem is that since it’s just common sense to us that if you tell a story, you’re trying to get it exactly right, that’s just like how you tell stories today. We just assume that ancient people thought the same way. And one of the things that critical, um, study of the ancient world does is it shows that people thought very differently. Part of the problem was that in the ancient world, you couldn’t write things accurately, even if, when you wanted to. Just to give you an example, I mean, one of the great Greek historians, Thucydides, wrote an account of a very important war that Greece was in, and he was writing long after the war. And he says that, you know, he had no way of knowing what a general told his troops—

Pete: [Chuckling] Right…

Bart: —before he sent them into battle. [Laughing heartily] Like, how would he know? There wasn’t somebody taking notes, you know? And so he says, look, you know, what we do is we just kind of make up the thing that seems to be the most appropriate for the occasion. [Laughs again] So, uh—

Pete: Inventing the dialogue, right? 

Bart: You invent the dialogue because there’s no other way, and you think about that in relationship to, you know, the Sermon on the Mount. For example, it’s written only in the Gospel of Matthew, composed 50 years, over 50 years after the event by somebody who wasn’t there. How would you possibly know? [Laughing] [Pete murmurs in agreement] [Ad break]

Pete: I think we’re touching now on orality.

Bart: Yes. 

Pete: And that, that’s a very important dimension too because and I think it’s a bit of a caricature but I have come across people who really do think that these things were written down not long after the events, or maybe even somewhat contemporaneously. Like the Sermon on the Mount and somebody sort of taking notes, and no one puts it quite that crassly, but I still think there’s an assumption about how quickly—you know, we’re in a bookish world and we sort of assumed they were bookish as well and literate, and so you’re just going to write things down right away. But orality, isn’t it, I mean, Bart, that’s, that’s a big issue when it comes to discussing the historical reliability of the Gospels for giving us an accurate historical picture of Jesus.

Bart: It is, and I’ll tell you, New Testament scholars are notorious for knowing nothing about orality. [Laughs loudly] It’s become an issue over the last 20 years or so, but you know, when I was in graduate school, we all heard that people memorized things, they memorized them accurately, because that’s what rabbis did, and they taught their students to do that, and so people were memorizing things and passing them down without changing them, and that’s how oral tradition works in oral cultures. 

And it’s just not true. And so I spent a couple of years actually studying issues of memory and orality. And it was really interesting seeing what we actually know about how oral traditions work today, and how they work in oral cultures today, but also how they worked in the ancient world, which is actually where the study of orality first started out by people studying ancient orality. 

And so many, you, you get books by people, New Testament scholars, who just haven’t—they assume things that they heard in graduate school or something, but they don’t, they haven’t read the literature on it. It’s really kind of frustrating, uh, to read that. But the other thing they all point out is that people weren’t writing things down because people couldn’t, most people couldn’t write. In the Roman Empire at the time, the best estimates are that maybe, at the best of times, 10 to 15 percent of the people could read, and that 10 to 15 percent were highly elite, educated people living in cities. 

Jesus is out in the rural countryside where people would not have had educations. And almost, you know, the best estimates in Roman Palestine at the time of Jesus is that something between three to five percent of people could read and far fewer than that could write. And by write, I mean sign their names. So there were not people taking notes, you know, when Jesus gave his sermons.

Jared: Is there some, to your point, Pete, assumptions maybe by readers today that they almost think of Jesus like a Caesar Augustus. Like, they’re, like, well, this is a very important person to us and it’s almost like a, we’re, we’re projecting that back because even you describing it, I would have, I think as a kid hearing about Jesus in that way, I probably would have been a little bit It probably would have made me uncomfortable to think of, oh yeah, Jesus was a person that no one would have known about in a lower class rural village where people didn’t read or write.

So I wonder if the assumption of people writing things down is also more like, well yeah, I mean, you kind of know that Jesus is a big deal, you’re going to write everything down that you, you know, come across. 

Bart: Well, you know, it’s because when, I don’t think there’s anyone who has been more important for Western civilization than Jesus. And so, we just assumed that he was that important in his day. But, you know, it’s telling that we don’t have a single reference to him outside of these Christian sources for, except for Josephus. He’s writing, you know, 60 years later, so. So, if he was so important, you know, why don’t we have a record of Pontius Pilate saying something about him? Or the Roman Emperor saying something about him? Or his enemies, the Pharisees saying something about him, the Sadducees? We have nothing from anybody.

And so, you know, if it’s true that he was raised in Nazareth, we’ve, the archaeologists have dug it up, there’s a tiny little place, a little hamlet, there were no schools there, there were no public buildings there, it was just, it was a small little collection of houses. And, and in the Gospels, you know, he never goes to a major city until the last week of his life when he shows up in Jerusalem. And probably that was the first time he went to a big city. It is the first time in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

Jared: Right. Maybe we can turn to the Gospels themselves, because there isn’t a lot of evidence outside, again, it’s like we wish there were to compare. But if we don’t have things to compare it to, then what has led scholars to their conclusions about the historical reliability of the Gospel traditions from within the Gospels themselves?

Bart: Yeah, so what you do, if you’ve got, if you have several sources of information, you’ve got to, you try and figure out when each of the sources was written, and if you can figure out who wrote it, the Gospels themselves are anonymous. We call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but you can read through all of the Gospel of Matthew, and the author never says who he is, you know, or that’s true of all four of these Gospels.

And so just on the basis of the Gospels themselves, it looked pretty clearly they’re written decades later. And so, okay, so we’ve got these accounts that are decades later, and you want to see is, did any of them use any of the others? Did Matthew rely on Mark for many of his sources and for many of his stories? And since the 19th century, it’s been usually thought that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel for many of their stories. There are complicated, long reasons for this, but it’s really not much doubted. Of course, everybody agrees that Mark was first. Matthew and Luke used it. There are debates whether John used Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But I think the large majority of scholars think the answer is no to that, so John’s probably an independent source. 

So you’ve got these independent sources, but you also have a lot of overlap. So where there’s overlap between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, if Matthew and Luke used Mark, then you have one source. You don’t have multiple sources. What you do, though, when you’ve got these four accounts of Jesus, if you really want to know if they’re accurate, the best thing to do is to see when they’re talking about the same thing. Like, they’re talking about the same event in the life of Jesus. And you can compare the accounts to see if they’re consistent with each other. Because if they contradict each other, if you’ve got two sources that flat out contradict each other, they both can’t be historically accurate. Either one is accurate and the other’s not, or the other is and this one’s not, or they’re both inaccurate, but they both can’t be accurate historically. And so that’s what you do. You compare the Gospels to see if they’re—it’s one of things you do, you compare them to see if there are contradictions. 

Pete: Yeah, and that’s, I mean, that was an eye opener for me many, many years ago, just reading the Gospels side by side and saying, my goodness, they’re, they’re different, you know? And, and you know, one thing that, you know, Bart, you know, know much more about this than I do, that’s for sure. But the fact that, you know, if you have Mark first and then Matthew and Luke, and they’re sort of adapting, I guess, Mark, and maybe, maybe other traditions as well, maybe you can talk about those, they’re intentionally changing Mark. And I can’t help but think that doesn’t factor into the question of historical reliability. 

Bart: Well, it absolutely does. I’m doing an online course in a couple weeks on the Gospel of Matthew. And the way I’m doing this is by talking about how Matthew changed Mark. Because it’s, again, the evidence is overwhelming that Matthew did use Mark. And you’re right, he changes it. He adds a lot of stories. That doesn’t make for a contradiction, per se. He takes away some of Mark’s stories. That doesn’t lead to a contradiction. But sometimes he’ll tell the same story. And sometimes it’ll be word for word the same as Mark, but he’ll change something. And when he changes something, sometimes it creates a contradiction.

[Laughing] And so you’ve got kind of two problems here. One is, if Matthew really thought that Mark got everything accurately, why would he change him at all? Is one question. The second question is: when he changes them, why does sometimes he changes it to be a contradiction? And if they’re contradictory, then how do you know which one to trust? And you know, or do you trust either of them? 

Pete: But maybe that has to do with different notions of historicity. 

Bart: Yes. 

Pete: Right. They don’t have the same kinds of agendas that we might have in the post-Enlightenment world. They just have a different way of thinking about what they’re even doing. And the fact that—you know, it’s still, it still boggles, it’s a simple thing, but it still boggles my mind. The gospel writers are presenting Jesus differently. You know, guys get together, sit around a table. You have no idea what problems this is going to cause for us later on. But they don’t think the way we do. And tell me what you think. I always think of these guys more as storytellers than historians who have been affected by Jesus in their community. And they’re interpreting Jesus, uh, this is my take at least, they’re interpreting Jesus in ways that make sense to them, maybe that defend things that they really believe are important about Jesus that other traditions might leave out. But that’s a whole different thing than, you know, I am writing this…you know, it’s, it’s Luke’s gospel, the way it begins, where Luke basically says, “Hey, dude, Theophilus, I really researched this, and I’m giving you an accurate account.”

Bart: Yeah.

Pete: And he differs from Matthew. [Laughing]

Bart: And Mark, which he used, you know. 

Pete: Exactly right. 

Bart: He says, a lot of people have done this before, and now I’m going to do it, and I’m going to give you an accurate account. Well, if he’s using Mark as one of his sources, what’s he saying about Mark now? 

Pete: That should be front and center, I think, in my opinion, when we even—That’s like a very concrete thing to think about when it comes to what do we mean by the historical reliability of the Gospels? And are we even using, in some respects, making a category error in having these expectations foisted upon them? 

Bart: Well, you know, they’re called gospels. They’re not called histories. A gospel, the word gospel means proclamation of the good news. And so these are making proclamations about Jesus. They’re not claiming to be historically accurate, and even if they did make that claim, you could still evaluate whether they are accurate or not. And, you know, it’s, the thing is, for your listeners, it’s a little bit hard to get your mind around it without looking at a lot of concrete details.

Probably your listeners, you know, I grew up believing the Bible had no mistakes at all, and that the Gospels were completely consistent, until I started just actually doing the serious analysis. And you don’t need to go to graduate school to do it. All you have to do is take two stories, a story in Matthew, the same story in Mark, the same story in Luke. Just put them in columns next to each other. Just read them right next to each other, and see whether they are consistent or not in the way we think of consistency.

Pete: And you can buy Bibles that do that. 

Bart: That’s right. Yeah, a Bible synopsis, a gospel synopsis, or a gospel harmony will, will put them in columns and you could just, you know, just see for yourself, are there contradictions here? And the thing is that if there are contradictions, that means that they cannot both be right historically. But the other virtue of the contradictions is they tell you that the author is trying to emphasize something different than the source that he’s using. So, like, if Matthew changes Mark, that’s really valuable in another sense, because it shows you what Matthew wants to say that he didn’t find in his source. And it means if you want to understand Matthew, you actually have to look at the contradictions and appreciate them, because it shows you what his version of Jesus is. 

Pete: So what we really have, I mean, not to be reductionistic, but maybe one way of putting it is what we have in the Gospels is a community’s reflections on Jesus and Jesus’s significance, more than what we would call history.

Bart: Yeah, they, you know, these authors—we don’t know what’s going on in their head, but I’m pretty sure they did not think they were lying about anything. They were just you know, they weren’t trying to be deceitful. They’ve got an understanding of Jesus that they’ve you know, part of it they’ve inherited from their community, part of it they’ve thought about themselves and they want to portray Jesus in a certain way. And if you pretend they’re all saying the same thing, you’re missing the point of each one. What you do, you smash all four of them together and it ends up with this kind of conglomeration that isn’t like any one of them. And when you do that, you’re just telling Matthew you don’t care what he has to say. You’re interested in conglomeration. You know, or Luke, I don’t care what you say. I’m thinking about, you know, how you, I’m going to reconcile you with John and end up with his own thing in my head.

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Jared: And I think this is something that’s very important for people who, um, haven’t spent a lot of time in the scholarship to understand, because sometimes it can be this fight between, are they historically accurate or are they not historically accurate? And that that’s the important question. And I think what this conversation does is help to, help us to recognize that maybe that’s not the most important question to ask. Instead it’s what were they trying to do? What are the emphases here? 

And I just think sometimes we skip over the base level of understanding, then we just jump over to is it historically accurate or is it not? It’s a very simple question. It’s like well maybe it’s actually not that simple, because maybe that’s not what it’s trying to do. And I really appreciate your point Bart about it’s called a gospel, it’s a proclamation of good news. Which seems pretty loaded to me, just from the very nature of what it’s called.

Bart: Yeah. Well, it is loaded. I mean, these authors, you know, they, they’re obviously not going to paint Jesus in a negative light. And so they’re, you know, they’re choosing what to say, but also how to say it. And so, you know, for me—You know, a lot of people say to me, you know, why do you always talk about these contradictions? Why can’t you say something positive? And, and my view is that the contradictions just show you that we’re asking the wrong questions sometimes. And that really, these Gospels, the point of these Gospels is to understand what they’re trying to say about Jesus individually, what each author’s trying to say, and if you think that they’re just all completely consistent with each other, then you’ll, you’ll misinterpret every one of them and that, that can’t be good.

Pete: Right. Right. I mean, a couple of things I’d love to ask you here, but do you have like a go-to example? I mean, you’ve mentioned a couple, but just something concrete that people can take away with them that maybe they can look up for themselves. 

Bart: Well, what I have my students do is it just to compare, you know, take any almost any two stories. But like you can find really small things, you know that for me, when I was a when I was a conservative evangelical, big differences didn’t bother me at all. I could explain all those. What ended up getting me were like little tiny things like oh my god that cannot be reconciled. But you know, but you know, some people say that’s picayune and who cares about that? So you know, one thing to do is, for example, is just to take the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. The description of Jesus’ birth is found in only those two Gospels, Matthew chapters 1 and 2, and Luke chapters 1 and 2. I have my students just list everything that happens in Matthew, just point by point, what happens in Matthew, then list everything that happens in Luke, point by point, what happens in Luke, and then compare their lists, and find out what the differences are, and then ask, are there any differences that cannot be reconciled?

And, ha, it’s eye opening, because they had no idea! But you know, the Christmas pageant that we do every year is a combination of Matthew and Luke. Matthew has completely different stories. They don’t have any of the same stories. They have a couple of the same themes about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, uh, even though he’s from Nazareth and that his mother’s a virgin. But, but basically the stories are all different and man, there are some things that you cannot reconcile if you look at it closely.

Jared: Can we talk then about, a little bit more on that, again, the positive side of that, of, of, cause I, I think a lot of our listeners are, have gotten there of saying, yeah, yeah, you know, we’ve done that exercise. You know, we had a professor Ehrman in our life and, um, we saw the list and now what? Because again, I think that sometimes you can not go far enough and, and still maybe be stuck in a modernist understanding where you just flip to the other side and say, okay, well then—

I remember in seminary doing readings where sort of the conclusion was, “Oh, these sloppy editors, they didn’t know what they were doing and we’re smarter than them. And so we got to kind of clean up these things” rather than “maybe they did this on purpose. And maybe there’s some value in reading it on its own terms, rather than putting these categories on it that we’ve just assumed were the right categories to use.”

Bart: Well, I’ll give you one example, more of a concrete one, I guess, where I think it kind of opens up why it matters for interpretation. The Gospel of Mark explicitly tells you when Jesus dies. The night before he’s crucified, he has a Passover meal with his disciples, takes the bread, says this is my body, takes the cup, says, this is the new covenant in my blood.

So it’s the Passover. You know, days in the Jewish Jewish tradition begin when it gets dark. And so you have the Passover meal at the beginning of the day. It seems to us like it’d be at the end of the day because it’s in the evening. But so Jesus has this Passover meal. Afterwards, he’s arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He spends the night in jail. He appears before Pontius Pilate, who condemns him to death. And he’s crucified at nine o’clock in the morning (in Mark). So it’s nine o’clock in the morning on the Passover day, the morning after the Passover meal was eaten. 

The Gospel of John, written some years later, a couple decades later, also tells about Jesus’ death and also has him have a last meal and crucifixion the next day, but, but he dates it differently. In John’s account, the meal Jesus has is not said to be a Passover meal, and when he, when Pilate condemns him to death, John tells you which day it is. It’s the day before the Passover, the day of preparation for the Passover, that Jesus is killed. And so Jesus is killed in John’s Gospel a day before he’s killed in Mark’s Gospel. 

Now, Evangelical apologists always try to reconcile this to show that actually they’re saying the same thing, when they’re not saying the same thing. But the point is not just that it’s a contradiction. It is a contradiction. In Mark, he gets killed at 9 o’clock in the morning after the Passover meal is eaten. In John, he gets killed at 12 o’clock noon before the Passover meal is eaten. The DLO is that the Passover meal was commemorating God’s act of salvation that he brought about when he took the people of Israel out of Egypt during the Exodus event, and it was celebrated every year by sacrificing a lamb.

In the temple, the priests would sacrifice the lamb, and people would take the lamb home, and they would eat it at the Passover meal. The lamb was always sacrificed, starting at noon on the day before the Passover. In John’s Gospel, John has Jesus die a day before he does in Mark, because Jesus is killed exactly when the Passover lamb is killed. And it’s interesting because in John’s Gospel, John is the only gospel that says that Jesus is the Lamb of God. It’s John chapter one, verse 29, and then chapter one, verse 35, Jesus is the Lamb of God. And so John has Jesus killed exactly when the lambs are killed to show that he really is the Lamb of God.

He does it by changing a historical datum. When did Jesus die? But he did it for a theological point, to emphasize that Jesus really is the lamb. And so if you, if you deny that, that it’s a contradiction, you don’t see the point that John’s trying to make. 

Pete: Well, Bart, I have, I think this may be a final question here, and it’s a big one, and feel free to laugh before you answer it if you need to, that’s fine. You know, we’re talking about the historical reliability of the Gospels for telling us something about Jesus, and there are a lot of questions that come up. But you, you do believe, because you’ve written about this, you believe that Jesus is a verifiable historical figure. And people listening might be saying, well, duh, and like, well, there’s nothing duh about it, because there’s, there are a lot of people who are arguing quite, quite strenuously that Jesus is completely mythical. So, could you just give a couple of points for why you say history bears witness to this person that lived, even if a lot of things about him we just can’t know? 

Bart: Yeah, I mean, you know, so that group of people you’re talking about are called mythicists. And they, uh, you know, they think Jesus is a myth. I think they are probably, I think in terms of volume, it’s mainly, it’s not so much numbers as in noise. [Laughs heartily] They’re loud. I wrote a book about this called “Did Jesus Exist?” And I tried to show in the book that there’s really, there’s really almost no doubt that Jesus existed and that we can know some things about him for a variety of reasons. One is that we have these four Gospels. These Gospels were based on earlier sources. We mentioned just Mark was the source for Matthew and Luke, but there are other sources that scholars have been able to establish that are behind the Gospels. And if you kind of add them all up, there are about seven different independent sources behind our Gospels that were floating around independently, probably written sources, not to mention oral traditions. So you’ve got that. 

You’ve got the Apostle Paul before any of the Gospels, who certainly knows Jesus existed. And he talked about Jesus being crucified, and he quotes Jesus in a couple, quotes his words in a couple places. And the thing about Paul is that he knows Jesus’ disciple Peter. He tells us stories about Peter, and so he knows his closest disciple. But Paul also knows the brother of Jesus, James. He explicitly says he knows the brother James and he’s met with him. And so, you know, if Jesus didn’t exist, you would think his brother would know about it. [Laughs]

Anyway, in this book, I go through, I try to explain that those are just a few things. I try to explain why serious historians really just have, do not doubt that Jesus existed. The question is, what can we say about what he actually said and did? And, uh, you know, what did he teach? What did he, what did he actually do, did he really do miracles or not? Why was he crucified? Those kinds of issues. 

Jared: Thank you so much, Bart, for, for jumping on, and I think you did a really good job of giving some illustrations about the point. I really appreciate your point about the differences with, um, John, because I think that really does capture more of what more conservative reading strategies miss when they are, you know, it’s almost like they’re trying to defend the Bible and in some ways they take away the meaning of the Bible, um, when they do it. So I really appreciated that example. So thank you so much for jumping on with us. 

Bart: Well, I, you know, I, I really appreciate it because I, you know, it’s absolutely right. When I started realizing contradictions is when I started, it just opened up the meaning of the Bible. And let me just say, if people are interested in this kind of thing, I have a blog. They just look up the Bart Ehrman blog. I talk about this kind of stuff. I post five times a week. I’ve been doing it for almost 12 years. And so people would have access to all sorts of discussions about this kind of thing if they’re interested. 

Jared: Sounds great. 

Pete: Thank you. 

Bart: Okay. Thank you. 

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Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to 

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget, you can catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jared Cazel, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.